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The Art of Beginnings

  1. Every thing must have a beginning … and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. ~Mary Shelley

  2. The beginning is the promise of the end. ~Henry Ward Beecher

Above are some thought-provoking quotes about beginnings. Writing a good opening to anything is an art form and you need to be aware that your beginning should echo your ending. The protagonist should see the world differently at the end even if they end up in the same spot where they began. I've talked before about opening sentences needing to draw the reader in while giving them a glimpse of voice, setting, and the call to action. But how do you know you began your story in the right place? Many times writers will write the first twenty pages only to realize that the story began on page twelve. It's heartbreaking to kill twelve pages, but you can lose your reader in those pages. So kill them you must. To prevent killing pages, you should really think about your beginning before you start.

So how do you know if your beginning is right? Knowing where to begin is part of understanding story structure. You should start your work at the point where something happens to the protagonist that entices him to start his journey. If you watch movies, take note that they usually start in the ordinary world of the characters, but by the two minute mark the journey begins. In "The Little Things" Denzel Washington's character is an ordinary sheriff until he has to go to LA to pick up some evidence. The story begins with him returning to the place he used to work and unfolds what happened to chase him out of LA. In Star Wars, Luke is an ordinary boy until he is called to action by R2D2 a small droid with a big message.

Don't be afraid to start your story where you think it should start and then end up scrapping it. I've done that a few times myself. I once started my book at a town hall meeting. My idea was to give a sense of community and character. My awesome editor told me that people have enough meetings in the real world, and they want to start with something more dramatic. So a rewrite was done. As for the town hall meeting and the war of words that ensued. It never made the cut. Think of it as leaving it on the editing room floor of a movie. In trying to be clever I lost my reader.

So begin at the beginning, keep your reader in mind. What tone are they looking for? What action or incident sets your protagonist into motion? How does that relate to the ending? Will they fall in love? Will the bad guy be caught? What will the protagonist learn that will change them for the better by the end of the book? Yes, even in a murder mystery the protagonist needs to learn something that changes them as well as unveils a killer.

Begin with action, but make sure you're not beginning with action for action sake. Having the heroine fall off a curb and spill her groceries is not a beginning if it's not related to the end. Falling off the curb and into the arms of the hero is a beginning. Or her clumsiness leads to an embarrassing 9-1-1 call where she must admit to being a klutz in front of a handsome EMT. In Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach, the hero of the story is going along with his life barnstorming - giving people airplane rides over their towns -when another barnstormer shows up. This man has an immaculate plane, never runs out of fuel and can talk even the most frightened person into a ride. The hero wonders why is the barnstormer here and how does he manage without the usual problems. That story begins with flight.

Your exercise is to open your favorite book and see if you can identify when the protagonist is called to action. Watch a couple of movies and see what happens at the two minute mark. Incorporate this into your beginnings and you will hook the reader from the start-beginning at the true beginning.

Need help with your writing journey? Contact me for a free 15 minute consultation to see if a writing coach is right for you.

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