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In the Beginning

I think we’ve all seen this countless times. You find a piece of fiction online, read the summary and think, “huh, that sounds cool.” But once you’ve clicked chapter one and read through the first few paragraphs, you’re turned off. They’ve started that way, again: the typical description of the protagonist’s appearance heads off a page-long summary of her life story. I’ve even seen published novels written that way. Shudder. I took them back to the library promptly, without reading another word.

So go and write the first draft of your chapter/story/whathaveyou, or have something written first to work with. Don’t worry, we’ll wait.

Yes, you really do have to get the word diarrhea out first. Now go.

Back? Good deal. Not exactly pleased with it, are you? (If you are, just give it a day or so.)

You’re not alone, though. Most of us don’t start out writing brilliantly, knowing exactly what we want to write, but instead have to cast about for a thread they can follow.

One of my favorite quotes:

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”
–Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903

Now that you know the end goal, go back to the very beginning. Look at each sentence, and evaluate it based on the following questions:

What need I disclose?

It’s so easy to start out by providing the reader with all the things only the author needs to know about a character. How they act, where they come from, what they like and don’t like. But the audience only needs to know as much as is pertinent to the plot, or more specifically, the main conflict of the piece. To allude to Chekhov’s gun once more:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Substitute the rifle for Character Detail #472. Does it play an active role in the development of the ending? If not, cut it.

Next.

How should I disclose this?

Any beginning writer has heard the mantra “show, don’t tell.” But sometimes it’s hard to understand exactly what is meant by that. Think: “Have I really illustrated the point, with my big girl words, or merely summarized it?” Writing is all about dramatization. If the narrator just tells us about what the characters are like or what’s happening, it’s less of a scene and more of a synopsis.

Give it dialogue, action beats. Slow it down, zoom in.

Compare:

She hears a car approaching and ducks into an abandoned building, terrified. For a painstaking minute, she waits to see if they’ll find her, but they pass at last and she breathes a sigh of relief.

And

Darting across the street she hears an engine downshift around the corner; blue eyes search this way and that until she slips into the shadows of that hallowed-out husk of a building. Coming closer, closer–Have they seen her? Will they take her away?–her heart pounds in her throat until the pitch changes and slowly the growl fades back into the broken streets. She waits a minute longer until she lets go the breath she hadn’t known she’d held, her shirt chalky with the dust of the concrete walls she’d pressed herself against.

The latter is vivid, a second-by-second account of the girl’s terror. The former merely tells us she was scared. Was’s, adjectives and adverbs can generally tip us off that we’re telling instead of showing; the “terrified” and “painstaking” are telling (haha). Use descriptive verbs instead.

When should I disclose this?

A lot of times the openings to pieces are gushing with back-story because the author doesn’t know where to start. Instead of beginning in media res, or the “beginning of things,” we start in the author’s train of thought, which can often be omitted.

Imagine if you started without any information. We see a girl admiring a man from afar. We’re left with questions that keep us reading on. What kind of girl is she? Who is this man? What is their relationship like? How will it develop? The rest of the details can be revealed over time, gently, without seeming like a character sheet inserted at the top of the page.

Yet, there’s also another theory to this. Give us a moment of the status quo against which we can compare the new conflict. I think it’s dependent on the story. See which works for you, but be mindful that you still need to grab the reader’s attention if you’re going to show us some of la vie quotidienne.

Some details can and should be included, but only as they come up/are relevant. When a character pisses yours off again for the umpteenth time, that’s when you can remember the reasons you’ve been holding a grudge against her these past few months. But not before they stir the hornet’s nest again. We don’t need to know that at the outset.

Hopefully, these three questions will help you craft a tighter, more dynamic and enticing story. Be spare with your details; hold back instead of bogging us down, like playing hard to get in relationships. It piques our curiosity.

Your readers aren’t dumb, so feel free to make a few jumps with them, leave a few pieces missing. They’ll figure it out, if you’ve written it right.

Your Turn

  1. Isolate the first 500 words of your piece, but be sure you have the ending/Point figured out. Take it slow, moving sentence by sentence, and and scrupulously apply all three questions to it. Are there clauses that are extra commentary, irrelevant to the story as a whole? What about the goal of the chapter? Be on the lookout for sentences that need a dose of adrenaline, making them convey action rather than mere summary. Have you played your hand too soon, and could you perhaps disclose the same information in small nuggets placed hither and yon?

Further Reading

Ray Rhamey has an entire blog dedicated just to beginnings, called Flogging the Quill. Much of what I’ve learned I’ve gotten from his critique of openings over the years. He narrows it down to just one question: “Would you turn the page?” And analyzes why or why not, inviting his readers to join him by posting their reactions.

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  1. lindarcia
    March 17, 2011 at 9:57 am

    As a writer who is still struggling to get out of her “frothy” stage, I tussle a lot with beginning. I don’t want to show too much, but I definitely want to get something out there to keep the reader interested. I’m going to check out Flogging the Quill from now on, because beginnings are where I always get hung up on.

    • March 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm

      Do you mean getting started writing? Or tightening up the beginning once you’ve written it? Very different animals.

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