Over at Kidlit.com, Mary Kole has an excellent post about what a writer should promise in the beginning of a novel, and how he/she can deliver on that promise. So often writers start off with some background information and don’t get to the real story until several pages (or chapters) in. But the beginning should be just as much a part of the real story as the rest of the book, instead of just a dumping ground for information about a character’s “normal life.” Kole says:
“If you have to start in a normal setting, at least drop hints. If yours is a ghost story, make your character see eerie shadows that disappear when she looks them head-on. If there are going to be dragons, you better let us know that this is a world that has dragons in it (a news report about dragon shortages playing in the background would be a cliche, but I hope you understand what I mean). If your character will be going on a long journey, drop subtle hints and foreshadowing, like briefly describing walking shoes piled by the door. Whatever. Just think about your story — the core of it, the plot, the arc — and then make sure that the beginning either starts with it or strongly suggests it.”
A lot of times, I think this is a mistake we make in a first draft. You’re just getting to know the characters, so you want to ease into the major conflict. That’s fine, but you’ll need to go through major edits when you start revising. And if you include information early on, make sure they function as part of the larger story. It’s frustrating to spend fifty pages with your main character’s neighbor only to have him disappear and never return. Early on in a book (or movie or play), we want to latch onto characters or places. We need to be invested. If that character or place suddenly vanishes, it’s hard to trust the author.
My husband and I were talking about this the other day in relation to the TV show Lost. The first season in particular is excellent, but originally the writers had planned to introduce one of the main characters, only to kill him off at the end of that episode. It would have been a shock to the audience, but it might have also caused viewers to distrust the writers. At that point, I’m not sure I would have wanted to invest so much time and effort into characters we could lose so quickly. Obviously people died in Lost, but we had enough grounding to understand why those deaths mattered.
I would promise that I don’t watch so much TV, but I really do.
Beginnings require a lot of precision. You need to build a whole world and cast of characters, while still providing a reason for your readers to continue while not bogging them down with information. Again, I think a lot of this can get cleared up in revisions, if you’re willing to make major cuts.
What do you focus on when you start a new story? (image: Lostpedia)