Don’t Start at the Beginning

Sometimes, the beginning is the easy part. In fact, sometimes it’s the only part I know. Story inspiration comes to me in myriad ways, snippets of dialogue, a flash of a setting, a character’s tragic backstory. Sometimes it is wide brushes of character arc and plot, other times it is a conversation shared on the run, in a dingy basement or a locked closet as a serial killer stalks outside. Sometimes it is even the beginning.

But most times it isn’t. And, as wonderful as my character’s tragic backstory or hushed conversation might be, none of that matters an iota if I don’t get the beginning right.

Because, show of hands, who has put down a book because you didn’t like the first chapter, page, paragraph, or sentence. 

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The beginning of your book is so much more than an introduction to your story. It is an introduction to you as the writer – a chance for your reader to find out what to expect, your tone, your approach, your pacing. If done properly, the beginning of your book will introduce you to the reader and either make them like you or trust you. Or both. But it doesn’t have to be both. Take Lolita for example. Or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Do we like the narrator or the protagonist? No. But we trust that the author knows what they’re doing and we continue reading.

Simple. No pressure, right? It’s just the future of your book’s success and potentially your success as an author that hinges on getting this opening right. Well, you can breathe – it’s easier to edit the beginning of a book than you might think. In fact, it’s a pretty common occurrence to chop whole sections from the start, to push out prologues or introductions, to shove the story from history to action. Sometimes it takes a weak beginning to truly understand where your book is meant to start.

There, pressure off.

Don’t believe me? A recent release of mine suffered from a weak beginning. Before it went to final edits, this book had undergone about four major story arc changes, and that ended up being part of the problem. When I’d first started writing, I didn’t know what the book was actually about. By the end, I understood that my hero wakes up hungover at a house party and wonders about his life intro didn’t set up for the strength or pace of the rest of the story.

This was actually the last major element we changed – and this book underwent character name changes, that’s how deep I delved into rewrites. Nothing stayed the same. So when my editor explained that the intro was weak, there was no question. It had to go.

The revised version was actually her idea. Forget man sits and thinks. Get into the action. The action, as per her suggestion, ended up being my hero having a stress seizure mid-sex.

Now, which opening is more exciting?

Niccolo cracked one eye open and then the other. He didn’t exactly hear the creaking of his own eyelids but he certainly felt it. The sunshine streaming in through the open sliding door was enough to rattle the currently few contents of his head, and even the distant noise of birds chirping somewhere off in the lavish garden made him want to crawl into a hole and hibernate.

Or

“That’s it, baby. Take my cock deeper. Fuck, yes.”

Nadia wrapped her lips around him, and Nicco groaned. He threaded his hand through her short hair and tugged to slide her farther down his length. Nicco tried for a deep breath, attempting to leash his control before release, but he couldn’t quite get that lungful of air in. His mind shorted and panic stroked the back of his neck, making his shoulders clench.

Does this turn off some readers? Maybe. Most of my reviews have mentioned it. But the book is erotic romance and, though potentially surprising, this introduction is not inappropriate to the genre. Not only does it get your attention, but it both starts in media res and identifies the tone, pace and heat level of the novel from the get-go.

Of course, not every book is going to start off with a blowjob gone bad. But there are certainly ways to hit some fundamental elements of starting a book off the right way. Here are a few tips and tricks to inspire your best beginning – and remember, editing is the route to success. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time. No one ever does.

Don’t start at the beginning

woman-2827304_1920But… but it’s the beginning. No. It’s not. Your book’s beginning is not the beginning of the story. These characters, these settings, these events, they were set into motion well before the book takes place. Your characters are doing things, living their lives, healing, loving, working, before we meet them.

No, your book doesn’t begin at the beginning and it shouldn’t. Beginning is boring, beginning is backstory and heavy exposition, beginning is the stuff that should be weaved in carefully and slowly throughout the rest of the book. I’m listening to a book right now where I didn’t even realize I didn’t know the narrator’s name until an hour in. It didn’t matter. Don’t start at the beginning. The beginning comes later.

In media res

Right, okay, don’t start at the beginning. Start right in the thick of things. In Media Res literally translates into in the middle of things. Does it have to be a firefight or page 45 of The Kama Sutra? Of course not. I’ve had characters dealing with the aftermath of phone calls in dark apartments and sitting on their horse looking out over the fields. By the middle of things, I mean the antithesis of starting at the beginning. Drop us into these character’s lives, rather than giving us their history first.

Daydreams, nightmares, and memories, oh my!

Fuck the dream intro. Yeah, this one deserves a good ol’ expletive. For one, you’ve gone ahead and established a world for your reader that doesn’t exist. More importantly, though, you’ve lost their trust. They thought they were starting with you in one place and you pulled the rug out from under their feet. Daydreams, nightmares, memories, it’s a false setting and you have to earn the right to do that and show your reader you respect them.

Wake up call

Unless your character is waking up as a gigantic insect, your character’s morning routine is about the most boring part of their day. Do you want to set the tone of your book as boring? Or do you want to give your readers a chance to enjoy what you have to offer? Don’t start at the beginning and don’t start at the beginning of the day.

You Talkin’ To Me?

Dialogue is always going to be a strong opening – if your dialogue is interesting and says something. Again, using my opening for the example, shocked, horrified or intrigued, the book starts in a pretty unmistakable place. Dialogue not only give us a chance to hook our readers through intrigue, but it also introduces characters and the narrator to the reader. Everyone speaks differently, so the tone of the opening line will reflect a character’s personality, effectively killing several birds with one stone. Still, dialogue needs to serve a purpose and it’s not always the right way to start a book.

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There are many things to consider in your beginning. A character’s personality is always an interesting way to hook readers – do they swear, do they flirt, do they cower? Exploring the landscape and setting is another, and there are many more.

When starting your book it is important to remember that beginnings, whether fairly or not, will determine if your reader hangs on to find out the rest or drops you in the did not finish pile. Yes, they are fundamental to writing a book. Still, it’s equally as important to remember that they can change and might, in fact, be the very last thing you write. Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time. Instead, open your blank document and set to work however you think your book should start.

Just don’t begin at the beginning. ♦

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