Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tutor Tuesday - Beginnings

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One thing that is just as important in non-fiction as in fiction is a beginning. No matter what you are writing, whether it be a paper on the history of plumbing or a fast-paced thriller novel, you've got to get your beginning right.

Beginnings should introduce the topic at hand, let the reader know what they are about to read. Are you writing an essay on the history of donuts? You better have a thesis sentence in your opening paragraphs that lets the reader know that right up front. Or maybe you're writing a romantic suspense novel. Somewhere in that first chapter, the reader should what type of book they are reading. Meaning, that beginning needs to introduce both the romance and the suspense.

This doesn't mean you need to lay all your cards out on the table. For non-fiction, you usually are more open about what you are discussing, but even here you can hold back a little, give the reader a hint of what your arguments are, but save your big slamdunk winning evidence for the body of the essay or paper. (Though for non-fiction, you'll generally want to list your arguments from strongest to weakest instead of saving the best for last).

And for fiction, you can definitely keep a few surprises in store. But by the end of the first chapter, the reader should know what the main problem is, the issue the MC will be struggling with throughout the book, and by extension, they should know what type of book they are reading. For example, if by the end of the first chapter, the MC, who is a titled young lady who lives in Victorian England, has met a cute boy and seen a ghost, I have a pretty good idea it's going to be a paranormal historical with at least a hint of romance.

Beginnings can be difficult to nail and are something I always struggle with, especially in fiction. My first chapter NEVER ends up being my "real" first chapter. For non-fiction this isn't as much of an issue because you can, and should, come right out and say "this is what I'm discussing and here are my main arguments."

But it can still be difficult to get that opening exactly right. In fact, while in line edits with my soon-to-be-published book on writing essays and term papers, my editor and I ended up adding a whole new first chapter...because there was important information my readers need that I had buried in the middle of the book instead of showcasing right from the start.

So take your time on your beginnings. The beginning is what hooks your reader, no matter what genre you may be writing. It's worth it to get it right.

How do you do with beginnings? Are they easy for you, or do you, (like me), spend more time on them than the rest of the book put together? :)


A Pen In Neverland: Angela Peña Dahle said...

I agree it is best to nail the beginning, taking the time that is needed to do it. Thanks for this post!

I'm following the OA Blog!

Karen Lange said...

Good post. Some beginnings are easier than others. Not sure why, but I think it is due in part to my confidence level going into a project.
Have a great day,

Mary said...

I spend more time on them because I love reading them. They're the one place in life where it's great to be sucked in.
"This doesn't mean you need to lay all your cards out on the table." This is SO IMPORTANT! In the last two weeks alone I've picked up 3 novels where everything was on the table in at least the first 100 pages. Not a pleasant reading experience. Males me hesitant to choose those authors again.

Amparo Ortiz said...


I suffer from that whole how-the-heck-do-I-start-this syndrome. I keep thinking about that opening scene/chapter long before I write it. Paranoid much? :D

You nailed it with the thesis statement suggestion, btw. Easier said than done, but it's possible!

Carolyn V. said...

I actually love doing beginnings. Is that weird? But the middle is a whole different story. =)

Cinette said...

I'm with Carolyn. I work hard to make sure everything I need is in the beginning, but the middle...I worry more about fluff and crap showing up in there, just to fill word count!

j.leigh.bailey said...

I'm actually pretty good at beginnings most of the time, but I tend to loose momentum as I get going. Then I'm stuck with an awesome beginning (in my opinion! ;) ) and then nothing to back it up.


Katrina L. Lantz said...

Love this! It's so true. I hadn't thought of fiction in quite the same way as essay-writing or non-fiction-writing, but there really does need to be a sort of thesis statement, or something that hints at what this book is all about.

I've recently decided that I prefer books that start with the internal conflict and then fan outward into the external conflict, and now I understand why. The external conflict might take pages and pages to develop fully, but the internal conflict is really what will drive the MC forward.

I've read beginnings that jump into action (because the author was told it made the book more compelling) and then the action dissolves into a romantic comedy or something else totally different from what the reader has come to expect. So yeah.

Spot on advice, Michelle, as always. Thank you!

Elana Johnson said...

Holy twin moment! I blogged about beginnings yesterday. Your post is about a billion times better, but yeah. I relate openings to Law & Order. Lame. ;)

Melissa said...

GREAT job. This post is excellent and I love your take on writing a great beginning... I just went and read my first chapter to make sure it was doing what it was supposed to. Thanks.

Cher Green said...

Great post!.The level of pain depends on the story. With most of my short stories, I've noticed that by cutting into the draft two to three paragraphs in gets me to the beginning of the story.