Writing Beginnings That Don’t Suck (Writing Workshop)

Every great journey begins with a single step forward. Where your story is concerned, that first step is absolutely, without question, the most important one. Doesn’t matter how fantastic the rest of the book is, if the first few sentences don’t compel the reader into the next paragraph, and that paragraph doesn’t force them to finish the first chapter, then you’re sunk right out the gate.

Your opening line is the front line. It’s your readers first interaction with the story and everything, and I do mean everything, depends on those first few lines doing their job.

But it’s not just a matter of starting the story with whizz-bang-boom in the first few sentences and then resting on your laurels. That next paragraph has to latch onto your reader by the scruff of the neck like a rabid Daschund. The paragraph after that must add another meanie-weenie dog. The one after that? You guessed it. Another ferocious ankle biting fur-ball.

daschund

Ferocious and Delicious.

The first chapter of your story needs to heap puppy after puppy on the reader until they are crushed beneath the dog pile and couldn’t walk away even if they wanted to.

When it comes to opening your story, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and we’re playing for keeps. By the way, what’s up with all these dog metaphors? Hm… we’ll get to the bottom of that later, for now, let’s focus on what really matters: Writing a Stellar Opening! Or, barring a stellar opening, let’s write something that doesn’t completely suck.

Onwards and upwards as they say!

Okay, so now we grasp the importance of a great opening, but what does that even mean? What does a great opening look like?

When done properly, we barely notice a great opening. You know why? Because we are so enthralled that we don’t even stop to consider the fact that we’ve fallen headfirst into this majestic world of centaurs and jello fueled jetpacks until we come up for our first huge mouthful of air which, depending on how strong your opening is, could be hours later.

So what does a good opening need? I’m glad you asked, please refer to the handy-dandy list I’ve compiled down below:

What Every Good Beginning Needs

1) Hook the Reader

Hooking the reader can be done in all sorts of ways. Maybe there’s something really compelling about your character. Does he/she have a unique voice? A weird perspective on the world that immediately clashes with our own? If you’re from a more literary bent, then the language itself could be the hook. Read some Patrick Rothfuss and right off the bat you’re hooked by the sheer beauty of language.

Quick note: Not everybody can pull off this sort of opening. Nine times out of ten I’d say people fail because they come off as flowery and pompous. You don’t want to be that guy, so tread carefully.
Inevitably, whether you have a compelling character or beautiful language, the beginning comes down to the hook. The reason why the reader should invest their time in your story.

Most books do this with a question. Will Mary figure out who put the Butcher’s head in her freezer? Will she figure out whether or not she thinks it’s kind of sweet and romantic or a little too forward and a bit creepy?

Most books get put down because the reader is bored. They aren’t compelled forward; they aren’t hooked. If that happens, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

2) Establish Bond With Lead Character

Right off the bat we want to know who’s skin we’re going to be living inside for the next couple hundred pages. Introduce us to your lead character and then make us feel something for her. Do it quick, you’ve only got a hundred or so words to really grab me and yank me in. Don’t waste time.

Refer to the post Cheating Your Way to Likable Characters for ways to establish this bond. Here’s a quick list for you lazy SOB’s out there.

Jeopardy

Hardship

Underdog

Vulnerability

Likability

Inner Conflict

Don’t know what any of that means? Too bad, go read that other post.

3) Present the Story-world

This doesn’t mean info-dump or take a paragraph to describe the skyline and the underlying political system governing your little world. In the beginning every word counts double, so figure out ways to introduce the story-wono dumpingrld without taking a step sideways to draw attention to the fact that you’re introducing us to the story-world.

I’ve done other post on exposition and infodumping (CLICK HERE and I’ll prove it), but here’s the nitty gritty to help you navigate the treacherous waters of your beginning.

Exposition

Act First, Explain Later: I’m not going to stop and explain why Daryl is about to shoot Wesley in the kneecap. I’m gonna do it, and you’re gonna trust that it’ll all make sense in the near future.

Comprende? Bueno. Now get over here Wes, Daryl’s got something for you.

Iceberg Explanation: Give us only 20 percent of what you think we need. Leave the rest underwater.
Information Inside Confrontation: Whenever possible use confrontation, or interaction with another human, to sprinkle information and propel the story forward.

Example:

/scene/

The gun bucked in Daryl’s hand harder than he expected. “That’s for fucking my wife.”

Wesley whimpered on the blistering plasticene sidewalk, clutching his gut. “I didn’t—”

Daryl didn’t have time for more lies. He took aim at the space between Wesley’s eyes and fired a second time.

/scene/

Notice a couple things. We jump straight into the action without introductions or back-story. Daryl thinks Wes slept with his wife, so there’s his motivation conveniently dispensed in the form of dialogue rather than some kind of internal monologue.

Is Daryl justified in his actions or is he a jealous asshole? Don’t know. Is he even our point-of-view character? Maybe. Maybe not.

For instance, perhaps he has his wife tied up in the back of the car and he’s gonna kill her next. Maybe she’s our main character and has to get away from her insane husband. Then again, maybe we find out she’s been cheating on him for decades and Daryl just learned none of his three children are actually his. Now we can at least sympathize with his anger.

Either way, at this point, we don’t know, but hopefully we’re intrigued enough to find out.

What’s a plasticene sidewalk by the way? Shrug. Not a clue. That’s just a bit of world building to give you an idea that this storyworld isn’t exactly like our own world.

Also, that very first sentence “the gun bucked harder than expected” gives us some idea that Daryl probably hasn’t fired very many guns in his lifetime. So where did he get this weapon? Did he buy it from a crack addict on the corner of 28th and MLK? Possibly.

I guess we’ll just have to read on to find out, huh?

4) Establish Tone

The above example is sort of morbid, huh? It has the sort of grit that would play well in a detective noir or mystery/thriller piece. Which is going to be awfully disappointing if the story you’re telling is supposed to be humorous or a romantic comedy. You need to set the mood immediately, give the readers no doubt as to what sort of story they are reading.

Seriously, don’t get cute and write a super-gnarly murder scene only to undo it at the end of the chapter with the old:

“Joe and Beth sat on the couch as the movie ended, wide eyed and traumatized. Nobody said a word. Perhaps Die Hardest: Oblivion Now wasn’t a good first date movie choice, Joe reflected.”

morgan

Now, the example from above is gritty, but we could easily tone it down into something more lighthearted with a bit of work.

Example:

/scene/

The gun bucked clean out of Daryl’s hand and landed in a puddle of rain water. Daryl stooped over to retrieve the weapon. “That’s for sleeping with my wife, douche-nozzel.”

“What the he–?” Wesley whimpered.

Daryl took aim at the space between Wesley’s eyes, compensated for the anticipated recoil, and fired a second time.

The bean-bag round glanced off Wesley’s kneecap.

/scene/

Is this funny? Probably not. I’m not good at comedy, but the take-away is that it sets an entirely different tone from the first example. The action is pretty much the same but instead of murdering Wesley, Daryl has resolved to use a bean-bag gun. A weapon he is clearly not familiar with.
The important thing is that right out of the gate, with both of the examples, you more or less know the sort of story you’re in for.

5) Compel The Reader To Move Forward

Never give the reader a reason to put your story down. Make it difficult for them to say, “That’s enough for tonight”, by always compelling them to move forward. This means asking a variety of big questions and little questions.

In the examples with Wesley and Daryl we have a couple questions revolving around what brought the two men to that place in their lives, and what’s going to happen next. But you can only string action along for so long before it becomes wearisome. Daryl can’t just sit there shooting Wes in the kneecaps all day long.

No matter how beautifully it’s written, eventually we’ll get bored.

That’s when you as the writer need to…

6) Introduce Opposition

Oh, would you look at that, what a conveniently placed talking point.

The beginning of your story needs to set the stage for the larger conflicts to play out.

How do we do that?

Well, start putting the protagonist in situations beyond his/her control. Introducing us to their nemesis might be a bit premature, because we haven’t really gotten to sympathize with our Lead yet, but we can start making their life suck.

For instance, in that first example we don’t really know what happened in the moments leading up to Daryl shooting Wes. Perhaps Wes was actually the one who tracked down Daryl with the intent of killing him so Wes could marry his wife? There was a struggle for the gun and Daryl came out on top and took revenge. Now, let’s say a patrolling robo-cop-dog has heard the gunshots and is going to arrest Daryl.

robodog

Seriously, what’s up with all the dog references in this post?

What does Daryl do? Run or stay?

Questions have been asked, and now our MC has some decisions to make.

On the other hand, if this is the lighthearted comedic romp with bean-bag guns and the like then perhaps Wes is actually Daryl’s boss and while he isn’t going to press charges (mostly on account of the fact that he’s planning on marrying Daryl’s wife following their soon-to-be divorce), he is most definitely going to fire Daryl.

Now Daryl’s losing his wife and job, but he got to shoot his asshole boss with a bean-bag gun, so that’s cool. What’s he going to do now?

Questions and decisions.

This is getting on the long side, so let’s wrap it up with a quick list of things not to do in your beginning.

NO:
-excessive description
-backwards glancing: ie: flashbacks or navel gazing.
-lack of threat. <—No lack of threat? That’s a weird sentence, but you’re a smart person, I’m sure you’ll figure out. Right? Right.

And those, folks, in a really wordy nutshell, are the key elements to a really good beginning. In the future we’ll talk more about this because it’s just so damn important, but for now I want ya’ll to boogie on down to the comments and tell me what some of your favorite opening lines/chapters are, and why.

Go on, butt-scoot on out of here.

Dog Reference Quota: Exceeded

Dog Reference Quota: Exceeded

Nightly Services

I took a short morning break from working on Mind Breach to churn out a little vignette for you guys. It’s short, and rough (no proofreading or spell-check for this guy!), but I thought I’d share it to give an inside look into my first-draft process.

First drafts aren’t always coherent, and rarely any good, but that’s okay. They’re the base, the mold you’ll be working from. Whittling away at the fat and clunky passages until you have something glittering and shiny worth looking at.

This passage was born out of an interesting play on words I thought up the other day. Can’t share that play here without giving away the story, but it’s an interesting exercise to take a simple sentence and construct a story around it. I challenge you to try it and share the results in the comments section.

Nightly Services

Joe ain’t a saint, but he’s a good man. He takes my confession and offers penance. It’s the same as every other night, stretching as far back as I can remember anymore. My sins are simple, but persistent. I get to him with hands already shaking. White knuckles closed tight, half moon circles gouged into my palms. Oily beads of sweat wreaking of despair trace highways through the dirt caked to my cheeks.

Joe stares down at me with stone hard eyes, his pupils like filthy black ingots that’ve been dragged through as many gutters as mine. There’s no judgment in those eyes.

The world judders as my own pupils track on the larger man towering over me. His face sags, sallow cheeks refuse to hang tight to the weary bones beneath as though his body bears the weight of countless confessions from men too weak to carry their own sins.

Joe ain’t a saint, but he’s a good man. He can’t absolve my sins, but that’s not why I come. He can help me forget.

For a man like me, forgetting is the best you can ask for.

In a darkened corner of this neon cathedral, men like me sit at red vinyl pews cracked with age and use, saying prayer to the blood of our lord. Their prayers go unanswered; God stopped coming here along time ago.

So we go to Joe. Our priest upon who’s shoulders we can escape this purgatory, if only until the sun rises.

The choir leans against a wall coated like a jigsaw puzzle in strips of yellow wallpaper. It belts a tune through tired speakers, an unintelligible moaning that fits the general mood of this place. Indecipherable words mingle with a discordant melody, saturating the air and pushing away the silence.

That’s good.

Red lights flicker behind the choir’s fogged glass. Worn buttons on the front give the illusion of choice, but nobody here has a choice. We’re here ’cause we have to be. Compelled by a demon deep within, forcing us back here night after night. Driving our irredeemable souls ever onward to a place God don’t even look anymore.

A broomstick of a woman sits in a broken wooden throne, leaning her head against the choir. Her eyes twitch beneath closed eyelids; drool trails from her mouth before pooling in her lap. If anybody notices, nobody cares. Shoulder length hair dyed red like the fires of hell is plastered to one side of her face. A hook nose bent twenty degrees in the wrong direction might have been beautiful once.

She’s the closest thing to an angel we got around here. If given the chance she’ll pickpocket your heart. But if you’re hanging around here, there’s probably not much in there to steal anyhow.

Joe places a fogged glass full of clear liquid on the altar before me. The world narrows, drawing tight in around the corners. My heart drags itself along to a ragged cadence.

The sour odor of sweat dripping off my temple reaches my nose. It mingles with the room’s heat, pressing down on me with an almost too real weight.

I pry my fingers open and take the glass between two shaking hands. Cupping the chalice of my lord, I stare down into a fluid that has the power to exchange fear for courage.

A band-aid for my soul.

I’ll have to rip it off in the morning, but dawn is a long ways away. Right now, bathed in the fluorescent glow of worn neon lights flickering their gaudy beacon of hope, I can’t be bothered to care about morning.

For now, I have sins to drown.

“Lord have mercy,” I whisper into the rim of my glass. He won’t, but it don’t hurt to ask.

I drain it in a single swallow. It burns on the way down, a purifying fire of absolution. This is my penance.

There’s another prayer on the altar waiting for my lips before the first is even in my belly.

Joe ain’t a saint, but he’s a good man.