Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why Am I So Hung Up On The Beginning?

The beginning of any book is key to me. This is the moment that you either hook me or hint to me that your book is not for me and I move on to something new. And yet, authors still will rant yell and scream when I (or for that matter any other agent/editor) will reject a book based on the early pages of a book.

"But Scott, the book get's so much better as we move through the story." Well, frankly, with some of the stories I have read, I would certainly hope so. With that said though, I find it always interesting that writers seem to think that the rules change for their story. For some reason, as an agent, I am expected to slog my way through the story, waiting until I hit that chapter that suddenly shines light on everything and makes me say, "wow, this story is amazing." My question to those writers is simple: "Do you sit though a book hoping that at some point the story will get good?" The odds are no.

The goal of those opening pages is not simply to get me hooked with the action of the story, but to draw me into the pages of the story and to give me a voice of the author that I want to hear more of. There is a lot that has to happen in these opening pages and, as a writer, if you want me to read more, it is your job to deal with these points successfully.

We need to be drawn to the characters
You never get a second chance to make a first impression and the opening pages is just the place to do it. This really needs to be a love at first sight. I want to be introduced to a character and be so drawn to this person that I want to follow them. In many ways, think of this introduction as being similar to seeing someone amazingly attractive. You don't have to hear the person talk or do anything. You don't even need to know his or her history, but you simply can't take your eyes off the person. That is the attraction you shoot for.

I guess it is for this same reason that I am not a big fan of starting a story off with the villain. I am not attracted to that person. I want to see what is at stake first and then be hit with the villain. It is like having the carpet pulled out from under me.

We need to have movement
This is that same action stuff we have talked about in the past. Starting off a story that has no forward movement is just a killer. If I buy a book, there was something about the cover or the blurb on the back that drew me in. I am excited about the story and I don't want to suddenly have that excitement sucked out of me like a vacuum. Keep that enthusiasm going and get me going with the story.

Does this mean you start with the central action of the story. No. What this means is simply have the character doing something worthwhile. This movement can also give the reader a chance understand the character a bit more as well. Hey, let's kill two birds with one stone here.

We need to get a sense of your voice
Remember you are the author here. I want to see that unique voice of yours coming out from page 1. I am reminded here of Janet Evanovich's books. You read the first paragraph and you are hooked. It's like having that comfort food. There is this feeling of "Ah yes, I'm home."

Look, there is no right or wrong way of beginning a book, but think about what hooks you in a book. In fact, a better approach would be to think of the books you don't finish. What is it the author is doing that makes you stop reading. What ever that is, get rid of it in your story.



  1. how appropriate is this post for me. I've been LABORING over my beginning and after way more attempts than I'm willing to admit here, by George, I think I've got it. Then, I've thought that before. Anyway, thanks for the post. Some are so good I copy into a Word doc and save in a file I have on Craft. This is one of them.

  2. Ditto, Barbara. I print out these gems and keep them in an ever increasing folder. Right now I'm polishing those first chapters in desperation and Scott is always a lifeline. (Hey, Scott, have you ever thought of publishing a "how to" on craft?)

    Thanks for the tips. Even more thanks for the CLARITY.

  3. The Wheel of Time.

    I picked it up, quite a few years after the first book came out, at a garage sale where they had several books in that series -- all giant. I thought, it has to be good to have all these giant books published.

    Then I started. Then I put it down. I looked at the three other books and shook my head and picked it up to try again. And again, a few days and a few other books, later.

    When I finally gave it to my husband I warned him the first 30 or 40 pages are a slog, but it does get interesting after that -- and I couldn't wait to read the second.

    I don't know how to explain this one. If I didn't have three other books there testifying to the sale-ability of the first I never would have made it through it, but it's become, at the very least, a cult favorite. People stood in lines at bookstores waiting for the release of the latest (I also gave up reading them some time back when I stopped being able to remember what happened in a book -- Hubby kept going a few books past me).

    Maybe it's the exception that proves the rule?

    (My word verification is puzededl, which I keep trying to rearrange into puzzled. It seems to suit.)

  4. Fabulous points. Thanks for posting. I've been rewriting my current WIP and cut so much from the first chapter that just brought it down.

  5. Um, what if my basements floods and ‘water’ backs into the furnace; may I use this excuse? **G**