Beginnings for Beginners

I am a literary hobo. I panhandle my way through the library, I paw through the dumpsters of remaindered books at Barnes and Noble, I shop the discarded treasures at the local Goodwill.

And, of course, because I can often pick them up for cheap or free I read self-published stories.

There’s a lot of good out there in the self-publishing world. It’s true that there’s more bad stuff than good stuff, but on the whole I haven’t had difficulty finding compelling books that were competently edited and reasonably well-written.

But.

When reading self-published books I’m aware that what I’m seeing many times is the work of someone new to the writing scene. Someone who is still polishing their craft, who hasn’t had access to the professional feedback the “real” writers get. (This is another blog post all on it’s own, but make sure you’re getting someone who knows what they’re talking about and isn’t afraid of hurting your feelings to read your stuff and give feedback before you hit “publish”. Listen to what they say. It will make a world of difference.)

And in reading these stories there’s one thing that I’ve noticed many new writers have a hard time getting right. The beginning.

See, beginnings are important and difficult things. Actually stories are important and difficult things, but I’ve only got a few hundred words here so lets focus our attention shall we?

Beginnings have to do a lot of work. They have to introduce the main characters, they have to set up the story world, they have to set the tone of the story.

And most people get that stuff right. Even the beginning writers I’ve seen faltering at this, usually understand the basics of setting up the story. But the problem is that beginnings have to do more than just set things up. They have to set the hook.

How?

A good opening scene makes the reader ask a question. It doesn’t really matter that the question is. It could be, “Why does a fifteen-year-old girl have a unicorn in her room?” or “Why is a cyborg fighting through a horde of aliens with a paper heart stapled to his chest?”

That advice you’ve heard about opening your story in the middle of the action? It’s fine to do that —though I would argue not completely necessary— but the action can’t just be there to look pretty; it has to plant a question in the reader’s mind.

Note however that the opening scene shouldn’t do the asking directly. You drop a line like, “So, have you noticed that John disappears every month around the time of the full moon? Wonder what that’s about.” and you’ve just lost about half of your readers.

Instead, the opening scene insinuates the question into the reader’s mind. It makes him believe that he came up with the question all on his own. And that makes him care about the answer. That’s why this moment is so important. Because that question is what is going to pull your reader further into the story looking for answers.

Of course the question and answer cycle doesn’t end at the opening scene. The beginning is just…well the beginning. Making your readers keep turning the pages looking for answers is what drives good fiction forward. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in the end, all good stories are mysteries.

So take a look at your opening scene. Be sure it’s going to make the reader ask the question you want him to ask.

Because the reader will ask a question. Your job is to make sure that question isn’t, “Why am I reading this?”

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