Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
So…beginnings. When it comes to writing, I tend to find beginnings the easiest and most natural thing for me to write. As I am both a linear writer and a pantser, beginnings are probably the only part of writing with which I am comfortable. (I am okay on middles, but forget about endings.)
The difficult part about beginnings is identifying where your story starts.
For me, a lot of this is instinctual. One of my writing superstitions is that I cannot write unless I have a first line. First lines are my glory. I love them, probably because they are the only things that ever come to me without effort.
There were no lady magicians.1
Once there was a little girl who played her music for a little boy in the wood.2
Min Soon-Yee was nine years old the day the iron ships of the West appeared with the morning sun, nine years old the day her first life died.3
On the day the moon embraced the sun, a star fell to earth and became a princess.4
Most epic poets plunge “in medias res”
(Horace makes this the heroic turnpike road),
And then your hero tells, whene’er you please,
What went before—by way of episode
—Lord Byron, Don Juan
I am fond of the in medias res opening, but am not necessarily fond of how it is employed nowadays. Many writers take “into the middle of things” to mean that they should start with an action sequence, and while this can work, it’s hard to care about a character dodging and weaving and escaping physical danger when you have no idea who this character is and why we should care about that person. Movies do this a lot, but they are also better able to get away with it because of the visual element to their form of storytelling. You can see context in a film, but you would have to read it in a book.
And that’s the most crucial thing about beginnings: context. Where a story starts can honestly depend; books don’t (and shouldn’t) adhere to a strict formula. Homer begins The Iliad in the middle of an argument where Agamemnon refuses to give up his prize booty, the captured maiden Chryseis. We are nine years into the Trojan War when the poem opens. A different storyteller might have started the story with the rape of Helen, or the moment Paris names Aphrodite the most beautiful goddess, or any other point in the narrative. What Homer did was choose.
Yet despite all this, we keep coming back to things like Inciting Incidents. Why? Because there is a moment when a story begins, the moment when the protagonist decides to become personally involved and take action. The story is what follows. But where that moment (which I call The Point of No Return) comes in your novel can vary. Sometimes it’s immediate. Sometimes it happens at the end of Act I. Sometimes it even happens before the story opens (as in The Iliad). The where comes down to a number of factors, including the author’s natural storytelling pace, their voice, and how they choose to tell their stories.
I will say this about beginnings: a proper beginning needs a Set Up, A Status Quo, and A Disruption. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, the Set Up is that an evil wizard was mysterious defeated by a baby boy, who is then sent to live with Muggles. The Status Quo is Harry’s life with the Dursleys. The Disruption is the arrival of the Hogwarts letter, which opens up an entirely new world to Harry. J. K. Rowling is fairly linear about how she chooses to open this first book.
But if we take the first book in her adult thriller series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, she changes it up a bit. She begins with the Disruption: the arrival of private detective Cormoran Strike’s future assistant Robin. Then she shows in flashback what the Status Quo had been: Strike’s life as a struggling detective in debt to a mysterious benefactor. The Set Up is woven through the entire book: a series of crimes to be solved by a one-legged private detective and his green-to-the-business assistant.
Beginnings are an intersection between those three components, and choosing how to arrange those components is really up to the author and the needs of the story itself, really. Sometimes (although I resist it because I’m not fond of them) a book needs a prologue. Sometimes it starts nine years into the end of the Trojan War. Sometimes it takes an entire act to tell the beginning of a story. Sometimes it takes a single chapter.
That’s all on beginnings! Next week, I’ll get to middles.
- I talk about Inciting Incidents on this PubCrawl podcast episode
- I break it down further in this post for Pub(lishing) Crawl
- From my NaNoWriMo novel. This was actually not the original first line; in this most recent draft, I had to add a prologue. The original first line I had was Raphael was late. ↩
- From my forthcoming book Wintersong. This was also not the original first line; this time my editor asked that I put in a prologue. The original first line was “Beware the goblin men,” Constanze said, “and the wares they sell.” ↩
- From a novel I wrote 5 years ago, which I wrote trying to escape from the book I am writing now. It started out as a short story, then grew into this 125,000 word monster. I am bad at writing short. ↩
- From my failed attempt at writing a retelling of The Magic Flute. This book is broken; I cannot fix it. I still like some of the writing though. ↩
- Latin, lit. “into the middle of things” ↩