Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Beginnings by Mark Troy

The perfect is the enemy of the good. This is especially true in story beginnings. I recently had a conversation with a writer working on her first novel who was getting nowhere. She had rewritten the first chapter over and over, never getting past it. That was her problem. She knew a strong beginning is important to a story, but she got herself stuck trying to make it perfect. She was never satisfied enough to move on, or, if she did try to move on, her efforts on the second chapter failed to produce the same level as her first.

Her problem had two causes. First, she failed to recognize that any story takes multiple drafts to assemble. Second, she didn't realize that, until the final draft, the primary function of the first chapter is to get the writer to the second chapter. It should be good, but not perfect.

A first chapter is like the icing on a cake. It should catch your attention and entice you to try it. When do you put the icing on the cake? At the beginning? No, you ice the cake when all else is done. The same goes for the first chapter of the story. You write that first chapter, the one that will hook the reader, last, when the rest of the story is done. A perfect first chapter will be a scene as close to the ending as possible. It will set a tone that will carry through the story. Until you have finished the story, you can't know where it will end or what the tone will be. Okay, you have some ideas about both, but you don't know enough to write the perfect beginning.

My friend's problem aside, what makes a good beginning?

Some years ago, Elmore Leonard famously put forth his ten rules for writing, one of which is, "Don't start with the weather." Leonard's rules, and particularly this one, have been the subject of heated discussion on writing groups ever since. Somebody, it seems is always ready to take exception. The pronouncements go like this: "There are no rules for writing.;" and "I'm a writer, nobody can tell me how to write;" and "Rules are made to be broken;" and "Why can't I start with the weather if I want to?" With the possible exception of the third one, all are correct. (Ask any rule maker if he makes them to be broken.) All of the arguments miss the point that these are not really rules anyway. If Leonard, instead of calling them rules, had called them "Some principles which have made me the most popular author since Will Shakespeare," there would be little controversy over them. If, instead of saying, "Don't do this," he had said, this is what works, he'd have a lot of adherents.

So what works? First, Stories are about characters. We read to learn about them. We don't read to learn about weather or scenery, so start with what's important; start with a character.

Second , we want to learn how the character changes, so start with the first change. Romance and confessions editors say to begin with the day that is different. The Hollywood maxim is begin with an arrival. Editors of pulp fiction say begin with a fight. No matter how you state it, the advice is to begin with change.

Third, you need to hook the reader with a strong image. What makes a strong image? Verbs.

Consider the opening of Ken Follett's The Key To Rebecca. "The last camel collapsed at noon."

Six words, but it creates a powerful image of a character in a fight for his life. Six words with one powerful verb--collapsed, one adjective--last, and no adverbs. Even though no character is named, we fear for him because he is out of camels, which means, in the desert, that he is out of luck. Another writer might have begun with the scenery, but not a master like Follett. We know where to find a camel. We don't need a description of the desert, because we have the image in our heads. Another writer might have begun with the weather, but not Follett. What else kills a camel in the desert, if not the weather? It's not until 350 words later, that Follett tells us how hot it is.

In summary, a good beginning has:
1. A character
2. Change
3. Active verbs.

Don't worry about making it perfect, just make it good enough to get you to the next chapter. Save perfection for the final draft. Oh, and don't start with the weather.

Mark Troy


Helen Ginger said...

I love the picture you paint of the icing on a cake enticing you to eat more, yet the icing goes on last.

Not one we're likely to forget.

Straight From Hel

Morgan Mandel said...

Great advice, Mark. I'll remember when I get to the end of my current work in progress to go back to the beginning and see if it all ties in.

Morgan Mandel

Dana Fredsti said...

I have a friend who has not gotten past hte first chapter on his book for... 12 years now. Your words are wise...

Mark Troy said...

I can't count how many times I've heard of writers who can't get past the first chapter. It seems to be the most common writing problem.