In the beginning…there was the beginning

Crikey, Nicola Morgan and I channeling each other again. I suspect the beagle is leaking my posts in exchange for beer. I wrote a post about beginning your story, so inspired by the a batch of submissions I’ve just finished reading. Each of them had “beginnings” trouble.

Now my post will read like week-old meatloaf – and lord knows my meatloaf suffers greatly the minute it pops out of the oven. So thanks, Nicola, for making me look like a copycat. I wave my little red pen and a few dangling modifiers in your general direction.

Ok, on to my original post that I wrote last Sunday.

As we all know – because we’re all frighteningly educated and savvy – that the beginning of your story carries the weight of the world on it’s little pages. Not only does it have to intro the character or basic situation so we have a proper setup, but it must hook the reader as well. I broke down the element of Beginning into these four elements:

  1. Where Am I?
  2. When Am I?
  3. Who Am I?
  4. Where Do We Begin?

Where Am I?

I admit it; I have an aversion to getting lost. I have this centuries old fear of getting lost and never finding my way back home. There I’ll be, a hundred years old, aimlessly driving around, wondering how I managed to drive to Houston when I live in California and was only going to the store for eggs.

In a word, vague doesn’t work for me, yet I see many beginnings where I have no clue of the setting. Think of the movies; do you ever see an opening where you don’t know where they are? Of course not. It’s visual. Well so is your book. If we have tactile information, we’re happy. It’s fine if you want to keep the location a secret because it’s key to your story. But you need to describe where your scene opens. If it’s in a white room, describe it. Undoubtedly, a character will be in that room, so an effective way to describe the room would be through their eyes. It gives it a “Where the hell am I?” quality, and lets the reader know they’re supposed to be confused as to the location. But at the very least, you’ve properly set the scene.

Do not make me ask for directions. If I do, it’ll probably come equipped with a rejection letter. And I’ll end up in Montana.

When Am I?

Ok, I also am a time freak. No, I don’t look at my watch every five seconds unless I’m waiting to board a plane. I have this phobia of missing my flight because I’m reading a book and lose all sense of time. Gee, I sound like a nutter, don’t I? But, pinky swear, I made the last call for boarding on my flight to Alaska last month because my nose was planted in my Kindle.Talk about sphincter pucker.

So I want to know when this story takes place. Again, refer to the movies. You can easily see the time period because you have a visual reference. If they’re getting into flying cars and zapping a quick cuppa in their glove compartment micro wave oven, then we know the story isn’t taking place in the 1800s.

Just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean you can ignore an important piece of the pie, like the time period.I read a story not too long ago where the MC was desperately looking for a phone booth to warn someone of an impending attack. “Wha’?” sez me? Pull out his trusty iPhone, for crying out loud. It wasn’t until chapter 5 that I realized the story took place in 1978. Oooohhh. The Clarity Bell ringeth. And Overworked and Underpaid Editor is frustratedeth.

We must have a time reference because it’s how we can discern a story’s plausibility. Time is a key element to the story’s foundation. When it is AWOL, I’m a-reachin’ for a rejection letter.

Who Am I?

I tend to glom onto the first character I see in the story because characters are the vehicle by which the story unfolds. My wee little brain is looking for attachment. If your beginning is populated by a minor or insignificant character, you better make sure it’s clear as to why they were the proper choice.

Likewise, I want to know who your character is – assuming it’s your MC. Have you ever been at a party where no one introduced you to that guy in the center of all the fun? He’s the one cracking jokes, mixing yummy drinks, making everyone feel at home – yet you know nothing about him.  You want to care about him by what you see, but you need to dig deeper. After all, he could be someone who hates beagles and trips little old ladies when they cross the street.

Did I start in the right place?

Often I’ll get through one, two, even three chapters and wonder when the book is going to truly begin. Most of the transgressions are that nothing is going on, and that’s your biggest litmus test. The author may think they are setting up the character and setting, but what they’ve accomplished is creating two or three boring chapters that don’t reveal anything.

Look at your opening chapters. Is something of import or interest going on, or can you ditch it and never miss it? Remember the Golden Rule; every sentence, page, and chapter has to have a reason for being there. If you can take those chapters out and still have a rockin’ story, then perhaps you started your story in the wrong place.

The reader will give your book one or two pages before they either skip to the cash register, or put it back with a discreet yawn. Start your story at a spot where the four basic elements (above) are rockin’ and rollin’.

As for the beagle leaking my posts? I’ve taken away her tequilla and blender until she breaks. As for that Morgan woman; sadly there is no stopping her.

5 Responses to In the beginning…there was the beginning

  1. CarolRose says:

    Lynn, I have a question about beginnings when the genre calls for your female and male protagonists meeting early in the story. I know it’s also important to spend some time introducing each character – at least their immediate conflicts, as well as time and place. In my current WIP, my female and male protagonists live in different places, and I devote three to four pages to first set her up, then a scene change to set him up (and change POV), then back to her, so she can travel to where he lives. At the end of the first chapter, they’ve met and are knee-deep in their immediate life-changing conflicts, together. Do you think this is acceptable, or would an editor prefer to see them meet in the first few pages? Thanks for any thoughts you have.

  2. Hi Carol,
    I don’t see any reason why you can’t have the beginning as you do. I’ve read many stories where the protags are introduced in different chapters.

    There is no real right and wrong when it comes to how you get your characters out – just as long as you get them out quickly. The reader will happily follow you along.

  3. Nicola Morgan says:

    Too slow, Price! But you took a different angle so we just ended up complementing (and complimenting) each other.

  4. Alas, slow I am, you Morgan woman, you.

  5. Steve says:

    Lynn,

    Normally I resist the temptation to inflict excerpts from my WIP on the unwary. But I thought i’d make an exception, as I unknowingly addressed a lot of your pet peeves in my opening and I want to show off just a little.

    *****
    They say start your story at the beginning. But this story starts at the end. May 18th 2009, onstage at the Wood City Civic Center. Not opening for Green Day – that dream never came true. But opening for Northern Heart isn’t chopped liver.
    *****

    And a couple of paragraphs later.

    ******
    And if you love our music, I hope you can love us. I want you to know who we are and how it all happened.

    You can never be so invisible as hidden in plain sight – on a stage, in the spotlight, in front of thousands of people. I don’t want to be invisible. Me. Kaitlyn Evans. Kaite. I want you to know who I am.
    ******

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