5 Tips on Writing Your Book’s Beginning
Beginnings. They seem innocent, yet they possess the inexplicable ability to bring a writer to their knees. First lines haunt us late into the night until we spring up from bed only to greet the sun with the rhythmic pounding of the backspace key. The words come to us, but as soon as we see them on the page that little voice in our head (all writers know this voice) tells us we’ve gotten it wrong. We put so much pressure on a single glimpse into our stories that some of us are stopped from ever beginning a new project. One beginning kills another.
But fear not, for the terrifying beginning has been conquered many times over. If you are doubtful, simply look to your bookshelf. Every title living there has a beginning, one that an author at one point likely thought was wrong (enter in that little voice). Still, despite overwhelming odds, words assembled together, characters came to life, and the world of a new story arrived.
Now, without further ado, let us begin.
1) Begin your book where your story starts.
Yes, it really is that simple. Every story has a natural starting point, the inciting incident, which gets the action moving. A bomb explodes. A lost parent resurfaces. A prince proposes marriage. From this point on, life will never be the same for your characters. Pick a moment right before all of this happens, and that is the start of your story. Start your book too early, and you risk getting muddled in unnecessary backstory (more on that later). Start your story too late, and your readers may not have enough context to appreciate the significant turn of events taking place. The first pages of a book provide a jumping off point to spring the reader into the rest of the story, so write what makes a meaningful and memorable landing.
2) Get it wrong. Then, get it wrong again.
Trial by error is a reasonably effective means of solving a problem, and discovering where to begin a book is only one of a million problems writers face as we craft our stories. Of the manuscripts I’ve worked on, there is not one that has the same starting point as I originally wrote. There may be the rare, master author who miraculously gets it right the first go around, but if that’s not you, fret not. Sometimes the best option is to write anything, even if you know it won’t be in the final draft, so you can move on to the rest of your story. Once you finish a draft, go back and try a different beginning. Then maybe try another. Sometimes the best way to find what works is to first find what doesn’t.
3) Show (don’t tell) just enough.
Besides the prologue (should you choose to write one), the beginning of your book is not the place for excessive back story. Those tidbits of tantalizing information about the history of your characters, world, etc. should be spread throughout the book where they best enhance the telling of your story. Your protagonist comes across her estranged father? Great place to describe the explosive, relationship-ending fight between the two of them from three years ago. She starts training at an elite police academy? Now you should take the time to explain how the police state rose from the ashes of a war-ravaged republic. The start of your book serves to set the scene for your story. Over-stimulating your readers is not the goal.
4) Look to the ending.
This tip applies more to plotters like me, but pantsers, please don’t skip this section. To the pantsers of the writing world, once you write the ending to your story, it may help you finalize your starting point if you initially struggled or found yourself unsure. My fellow plotters, when trying to map out your novel, sometimes it is best to work backward. If you know where your story is going, you can determine what needs to happen to get there. Some authors also enjoy charming their readers with the beauty of a circular story structure. The story starts where the story ends. Find one, you find the other.
5) Trust yourself.
One of the most frustrating aspects of writing is that no matter how many articles you read or seminars you attend, at the end of the day it comes down to just you and a blank page. You are the artist and creator. The ever-elusive muse will never see their name spread across the cover of a novel in gold embossed lettering. Neither will your editor, agent, or publicist. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you allow yourself the liberty to listen to and trust yourself, and I don’t mean that little voice in your head we mentioned earlier. I mean be able to recognize the feeling of satisfaction when after four tries at it, you’ve finally found that irresistible opening line that will draw your readers in like gravity.
So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead. Begin.