Crafting a Strong Beginning

Hey there PubCrawlers! Today I’m sharing a craft post about writing a strong beginning. As with any and all craft-oriented posts shared here by me or any of the other PubCrawl writers, keep in mind that this advice is meant to be general and certainly will not apply to all stories.

First, an apology. I’m sharing with you a three-point list I use to help me craft my story beginnings, but I no longer remember where it came from originally. I would love to credit the source, but I just can’t find it! It’s possible this came from a blog post I once read that is no longer available, or maybe I saw this in one of the numerous books I’ve read on writing, or it may even be a list I cobbled together myself. The point is, I’ve been using this for a long time—at least since I started drafting Ivory and Bone in 2013. For a long time, I’ve let the fact I can’t credit the source stop me from sharing this info in a post, but I feel like it’s too good not to share. So pleeeaaase: If anyone reading this recognizes it as a list shared somewhere else, (or if it’s your own!) please let me know so I can give proper credit!

When I start a new book, one of the first things I do is open up my folder “Novel-writing Tools” and copy my file titled “What the opening should have.” I save a copy of that file in the new folder, which often has little else in it but maybe a one-paragraph blurb of the story idea. Here’s what’s in my “What the opening should have” file:

A clear need in the main character that the reader will relate to

A pivotal event in the character’s life with high stakes

A mystery surrounding what’s about to happen that makes the reader curious and anxious to know what’s coming

That’s the entire document. Now, as I said in my initial disclaimer, there are probably lots of great openings that don’t contain these three things. This is a guide. It helps me craft those crucial opening scenes in a way that feels grounded and less like guesswork.

So let’s look at each item on the list.

A clear need in the MC that the reader will relate to. In the context of creating your story opening, a character’s need doesn’t have to be the need that’s going to drive the whole story, but it should be the need that drives this first scene. Secondly, the idea of that need being relatable is important, since, unless this is a sequel, we won’t relate to this character at all yet. Without story context, I only have the context I bring within myself. So opening with a clear need that makes sense to the reader will give the reader something to latch onto as they step into your story.

A pivotal event in the character’s life with high stakes. Lots of writing advice talks about the normal world, the world as it is before the story begins, and the story world, which the main character inhabits once the inciting incident occurs. Many good story openings manage to ground us in the normal world so that we feel the strength of the inciting incident and what it means to the MC. Examples would be the opening of Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, where we feel Luke’s boredom before he joins Obi-Wan, and the first Harry Potter, where we experience his life with the Dursleys before he goes to Hogwarts for the very first time.

A mystery surrounding what’s about to happen that makes the reader curious and anxious to know what’s coming. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much a sense of mystery matters to a good story. The opening is one place where that is particularly true. It’s not easy to sell a reader on your amazing character or your amazing world in a scene or two, but you can make them curious and desperate to know what’s coming. In the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games, Katniss tells us that Prim must’ve gotten in bed with her mother during the night because of bad dreams, since today is the day of the Reaping. The author doesn’t tell you what the Reaping is, because she wants you to keep reading. But we know it gave Katniss’s sister nightmares, and we know it’s today. Who wouldn’t keep reading to see what’s coming?

That’s it! That’s my entire guide to writing a strong beginning. Once more I need to share my wholehearted apology for not being able to credit the source of this! Please let me know if you’ve seen this before, and where.

How do you handle beginnings? Do you introduce your story or characters in a specific way? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

        

10 Responses to Crafting a Strong Beginning

  1. Linda Whalen Jun 4 2018 at 11:55 am #

    Thanks Julie, this will definitely go up on my blurb wall by my computer. Since i’m a writer and an artist I like visuals close to my computer that I can give a quick glance so I created a “blurb” wall 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Jun 4 2018 at 1:33 pm #

      I love the idea of a “blurb” wall! I’m glad this post made the cut! 🙂

  2. Monica Cardoza Jun 4 2018 at 12:23 pm #

    Thank you for sharing. I’ve already saved it as a file in my Novel Writing Advice folder.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Jun 4 2018 at 2:11 pm #

      Ah, your Novel Writing Advice folder sounds like my Novel-writing Tools folder! So good to have one of those! 🙂

  3. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 4 2018 at 1:02 pm #

    When you say the beginning, what size of text are we talking about? The first paragraph, page, 5 pages? You also didn’t say what the pivotal event is like. I assume it’s some sort of tipping point between the normal and story worlds? The pivotal event is the inciting incident? In my stories the length of the ‘beginning’ seems to be longer and more complicated than your three rules spell out.
    So let’s see. I have 5 novels, but 2 are sequels, so I’ll leave those out. I usually start with the MC, in media res. I introduce new characters as I need them. Plot and setting a distant second/third, if I’ve thought about them at all.
    The first novel started with the MC pausing in mid-step, curious about something he heard. Lots of text about his village and his current purpose, all of which got kicked over when the II took place at the end of the chapter.
    The second novel started with a man learning the hard way that werewolves aren’t social animals. The II was again at the end of that chapter.
    The third started with the MC preparing to kill the ghost of his client’s mother. The first chapter introduced the craft of Ghostkilling, the II took place at the end of chapter 2.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Jun 4 2018 at 2:29 pm #

      Hi Marc! Yeah, I would have to say that I was intentionally vague with the use of “beginning,” because it can really vary. I guess I’m speaking in very broad terms about the part of the book that introduces the reader to the story. That could be the first scene or scenes, or the first chapter or chapters. As far as the “pivotal event,” what I’m referring to here is not necessarily the Inciting Incident, but still something that gets the story moving. An incident that impacts the stakes of this scene, if not the story to come. So while it might be the II, it might just set the story moving.
      As always, this is just my general advice. I’m certain there are endless ways to effectively start off a story!

  4. Alexia Chantel Jun 5 2018 at 12:58 pm #

    Nice! Thanks for sharing, Julie. This is going to be printed, laminated, who doesn’t love laminating pretty font, and stuck on the wall of my writing space!

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Jun 7 2018 at 8:01 pm #

      Hi Alexia! I’m so glad you found the post helpful! And yes, I do love laminating pretty fonts! 🙂

  5. Laura Medlock Jun 6 2018 at 7:58 am #

    Such a great post thank you Julie! I’m rewriting my beginning now so it’s in credibly pertinent. Something I tend to struggle with is not having a goal for my character, but instead focussing on pretty description or a shallow ‘happening’ that doesn’t move the plot. I need to learn to trust my gut and ensure I stick to these points.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Jun 8 2018 at 7:13 am #

      Hi Laura, so glad this post was well timed! I often find myself writing description, thinking I’m drawing the reader into the scene (which definitely has its place!) when I need to focus on connecting them to my character. I recently rewrote the beginning of the book I’m working on, so I feel you! Sending lots of good writing vibes!

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