Story Structure: Beginnings
by Tyora Moody
In The Beginning …
Anyone familiar with the first chapter of the first book in the Bible, Genesis, will recall these three words. While simple, the words in one breath dramatically draw the reader’s attention into a powerful event. With further reading, God is center stage and He “speaks” the world into existence. As a writer, it should be noted the power of words, and especially the awesome task of writing the beginning or if you want to think in theatrical terms, Act I.
In the last article, I talked about the two writing styles. Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, you will spend quite a bit of time editing those first few chapters. Why? Because these few chapters are not only crucial to potential readers, but you will eventually have to impress an editor at a publishing house or an agent. Currently, the economy is struggling and publishers are trying to stay afloat. That means books are clearly being perceived as luxury items as people continue to monitor their budgets. Your writing has to stand out starting from the first page, the first line, and in some cases the first word.
I can honestly tell you, for my first manuscript, I spent way too much time crafting the first ten chapters. At some point, I realized I need to get past the first one-third of this book. Along the way, there were some key points I learned. Below you will find five checklist items you should keep in mind for the beginning of your novel.
1) Opening Lines – Hook Your Reader. The opening lines are really important not only for the first chapter, but every chapter. You need to write well-crafted sentences that will hook the reader. These sentences may take some work, requiring that you sharpen them over and over again until they flow with purpose. Here are a few first lines to ponder from some of my favorite authors:
Rachelle Mitchell Covington felt both giddy and guilty.
— First Line, Chapter 1 of The Someday List by Stacy Hawkins Adams
Rayna’s eyes welled with tears as feelings of loneliness and disappointment overtook her emotions.
— First Line, Chapter 1 of Married Strangers by Dwan Abrams
The worst day of my life was the day I caught my husband cheating on me.
— First Line, Chapter 1 of My Soul Cries Out by Sherri Lewis
I hate demons. A dang-gone demon kept me from eating my French fries.
— First Sentences, Chapter 1 of The Exorsistah by Claudia Mair Burney
No one would miss me. They never did. And that was okay because I’d made up my mind. I was never coming to the ballet class again.
— First Sentences, Chapter 1 of Rhythms of Grace by Marilynn Griffith
After reading the first lines above, you can probably tell the genre and without even flipping to the back of the book, you’ve been clued into some powerful events and emotions that are about to take place. Those are just a few lines! That’s what you need to aim for as you begin a chapter.
2) No Backstory. Most writers when they start a story for the first time, may be guilty of this one. Backstory is the events that happened off-stage or in the past. The first chapter is not the place to try to explain the character’s background. There are ways with well-crafted sentences to include a small tidbit here and there about the background information, but you don’t want to dump it all on the reader in the beginning.
Whether you write suspense or romance, just save the information, and try to include some mystery or suspense about the character. Information can be revealed later in the story where appropriate. Just remember your focus, in the beginning, is to draw the reader’s attention into what’s going on NOW!
3) Introduce your Protagonist. You may have a cast of characters, but usually there is going to be a main character or protagonist who really drives the story. How you present this person, whether through first or third person, plays an important role in the story set-up. Do you want the reader to empathize with the character? Or do you want the readers to love to hate the character? You definitely want to be sure to work on the character development.
Don’t start a character off being sassy and then later she starts acting mousy. Through the character development process, you should have a really good understanding of her personality, so you can keep the behavior consistent. Sometimes a conflict or struggle may cause a character to stumble, but the personality should still be recognizable.
4) Bring the scene to life. Learn the art of show, not tell. This technique is another whole article. I still find myself having to work on this when I edit. You want to capture the reader’s imagination and bring them into the story. This is usually done by honing in on the senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste).
You have to be careful about being too detailed. I discovered depending on the genre, some writers can get away with more description then others. For example, if you write speculative or fantasy fiction, you really have to paint a vivid picture because you created a fictional world. If you are writing a historical, you are going to have to spend some time bringing that particular time period to life in the reader’s imagination.
5) Don’t Stop! Have you start the first few chapters of a novel and then stopped? Maybe you edited those first 50 pages so much that now you are not really sure what to do next. Most proposal or queries only require the first three chapters. Those pages you wrote are probably impressive enough to attract an agent to ask you for your completed manuscript. Can you see a problem here? Notice the word “completed.”
You have to push past the beginning. My advice is to write a rough draft, and then go back to edit. The more you write, the more you will develop editing skills along the way. What is most important is to TELL THE STORY, beginning to end.
Now these are just five pointers I’ve learned, but for a real expert, check out The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman.
Also during the beginning stages, it’s important to format your manuscript properly. Believe me, this was one of the first steps I took and it really helped. When I decided to submit my manuscript to a few contests, I didn’t have much to do as far as the formatting. As a matter of fact, I received great scores for the formatting if nothing else.
Here is another book you should have on your bookshelf. Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript by Cynthia Laufenberg.