What elements make up a good Beginning?

Vaz

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Hey Chronners!

So, I'm struggling with writing the alternative beginning to my novella. I'm finding it difficult to balance the tone I want the story to have, how close or distant the POV should be (debating on writing omniscient) and how quickly and closely I should stick to the action. I wanted the opening to be a slight slow burner, but I also don't want to lose the readers interest. I also enjoy writing and exploring the emotions between my two characters, but that comes at the expense of getting straight to the meat of the story or action. Is that a bad thing?

What type of beginnings do you write? Are they action packed? Slow? Tense?

What elements do you think make up a great start to a story and how are they implemented?

Thanks.

V.
 

sknox

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Beginnings are easy. I've started hundreds of them. :)

There's really not a way to answer this in general terms. Not only do beginnings vary by genre and type of story, different readers like different things. Just remember that you yourself are your first reader, so you actually to do only two things.

1. Actually write it.
2. Actually read it.

If *you* like it, then you can go from there. Let's say it's military SF, just to pick a genre. After you've read several handfuls of military SF novellas, have read lots of reviews of same, *and* after you've written four or five yourself, you'll probably start to develop an ear for it. Until then, you're pretty much just banging on keys looking for a tune.
 

goldhawk

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Beginnings should reflect the tone of the whole story. What is your climax like? If it's action-packed, then your beginning should be too. If it's an emotional epiphany, then your beginning should be an emotional exploration too.
 
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Shorewalker

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I think that the best openings involve something happening...action, a discussion, an argument, a death, a birth, etc.

That doesn't mean that you can't start slowly, but you have to be be damned good to reel in the reader.

As previous critiques here have proven to me, description/back story/exposition really doesn't go down too well.
 

Steve Harrison

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Most of my books have started with an action sequence, but my first published novel begins with a bored teenager staring out of a window and thinking about what a boring life he has. I couldn't sell the book until I added that prologue, so all I can say is, whatever works... works.
 
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scarpelius

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To me, stories are like songs. The ones that start interesting, have a likeable beat/rhythm are the one that I remember.
Put side by side songs that you like and songs which makes you yawn and then try to reproduce that experience in your story.
You also need to take into consideration that people today are use to get instant gratification. A slow burner as you say, might make them abandon the reading before it become interesting.
 
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Brian G Turner

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Tension, conflict, immediacy - something currently happening that it makes interesting.

Too often writers think they need to warm up the reader at the start, but I say put them on an already moving vehicle. :)
 

HareBrain

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Interestingness. That's all.

It's often easier to list what is not interesting than what is, e.g:

Backstory for characters we're not yet invested in (unless it's trulty remarkable).

Relying on emotions that aren't out of the ordinary (but if they are extraordinary, they need lots of context, so that's tricky too)

Description, unless it really lights up the imagination.

I'd tend to go with mystery/intrigue, the promise of something dramatic happening soon, and some humour.
 

Toby Frost

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Ages ago I wrote a post about this and there was some interesting discussion afterwards.

What I think about openings

I think it's very difficult to answer your question in detail without seeing the rest of the story. I think it's a matter of raising the chances of the reader keeping going, rather than doing one thing to guarantee that they'll read on. As with a lot of writing, nothing is absolutely guaranteed to work but some things will make it more likely. As Harebrain says, there are also things that reduce the chances of success.
 

The Big Peat

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Something Should Be Happening.

It doesn't have to be a big thing, or a hugely tense thing, or fast-paced or all that related to the story etc.etc.

But the characters have to be trying to do something, and we should understand what they're trying to do. And in that understanding -

The Reader Should Have Questions.

Because its those questions, even if subconscious, that'll make them keep reading.

YMMV and all that mind. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files opens with Harry arguing with the postie about him having a sign saying professional magician and a lot of exposition about that. And its clearly worked, even if I think its technically flawed. Although I suppose he's doing something (arguing) and it raises questions (so many questions) so maybe its not that divergent.


edit: to clarify - something should be happening, the characters should be doing something because

a) There's some immediacy to the novel
b) Its a lot easier to start showing things about the characters when they're doing things, and you want to start showing things about them ASAP
c) It starts providing questions quicker
 
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picklematrix

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I suppose a good opening would be one that told us something important about character, setting and story.
Most scenes need only achieve one if those things, but an opening needs to be more efficient if it is really the right place for the book to start. In order to get hooked, a reader needs to start learning about the world, characters and plot straight off the bat.
 

Vaz

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Beginnings should reflect the tone of the whole story. What is your climax like? If it's action-packed, then your beginning should be too. If it's an emotional epiphany, then your beginning should be an emotional exploration too.
Some action but it's more of an emotional climax.

@Toby Frost thanks for posting that link, diving into the thread now.

Thanks for the responses folks. It might actually be my POV tripping me up as well, by being so distant with omniscient and being allowed to include whatever information I want whenever I want. I'm going to give close third person a crack instead.

Thanks.

V
 

Phyrebrat

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Vaz, I'm not sure if this will be appropriate to your idea but I often write my openings of new stories and a change of direction within those stories as if I'm doing a 300 worder for here. It helps me get in sufficient backstory whilst also keeping the thing ticking along and not straying into overblown territory.

I'd also give the caveat that as well as POV, genre is important. How often do you have a visceral reaction against some advice you've seen here on Chrons? Often I do because the great advice that is given can often be at odds with the genre's reader expectations.

For example, I think of the amount of 'community' story in a Stephen King novel even in its opening (look how long it takes for Georgie and Adrian Mellon to meet their ends at the beginning of It) would be frowned upon if they were posted in crits or WG here anonymously, but for that genre, a sense of the characters' life is crucial to the reader's later payoff. We need to empathise and put ourselves in the world so that when the bad things happen, we can react personally to it. That's true for all genres, but in horror it's particularly important.

That works for that genre (horror/weird fiction), and I'm no authority on fantasy which I'm assuming this project of yours will be, so I would definitely recommend Peat and HBs comments..

Is this the same story that you put up in Crits recently?


pH
 

The Big Peat

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I'd also give the caveat that as well as POV, genre is important. How often do you have a visceral reaction against some advice you've seen here on Chrons? Often I do because the great advice that is given can often be at odds with the genre's reader expectations.

For example, I think of the amount of 'community' story in a Stephen King novel even in its opening (look how long it takes for Georgie and Adrian Mellon to meet their ends at the beginning of It) would be frowned upon if they were posted in crits or WG here anonymously, but for that genre, a sense of the characters' life is crucial to the reader's later payoff. We need to empathise and put ourselves in the world so that when the bad things happen, we can react personally to it. That's true for all genres, but in horror it's particularly important.
Tbf, I think the first thing (or close to it) in A Call for the Dead is a potted history of George Smiley's life. David Eddings starts Pawn of Prophecy with a description of Garion's early life and the place he grew up. These slow ambling starts that 100% would never get past crits here exist in every genre and in the repertoire of a lot of very successful writers.

I'd say my advice holds good for 99 out of a 100 beginnings across all writing, maybe, but the hundredth one completely ignores it and does just as well. I don't know how, I don't know why, but it does.
 

sknox

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Plot, character, setting, theme. A good book can open with any of these foremost. It bothers me a bit to see so much advice about hooking the reader reduced to action sequences. Start with a bang; blow something up. Sure, sure, but that's not the only way to begin. Others here have said as much.

I want to add another to these four: voice. A very good writer (which is to say, a writer than appeals to me!) can capture me with a great use of language. One who can do that consistently (for me) is Joseph Conrad. The opening to Nostromo, for example, is basically a long camera pan across a tropical harbor that eventually brings us into the home of a main character. No action, no hook. But the writing is as lush as the tropical bay. And, be it said, Conrad does set the hook a few pages further in.

There are scads of examples of this sort of thing. It's no small trick to accomplish, and it's not going to work for every reader (then again, what does?), but it's there. So I'll make it five types of openings. One that leans most heavily on establishing one or more interesting characters, an opening that hooks you with plot devices (explosions, dead body on the floor), one that gives us an exotic setting (SF and fantasy do more of this than other genres), and rarest of all, one that opens puts the theme out there front and center (I think of A Prayer for Owen Meany or any number of books by Hermann Hesse -- I guess most comedic novels would fall in that category, too).
 
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