I’m tired, my stomach hurts, and I have a thirteen-hour day ahead of me. Let’s get started (an appropriate statement).
Day Thirty-Five – The best (and worst) beginnings
Update on 8/13/14 – This failed to post yesterday, despite WordPress saying it had been posted. Suffice it to say I am royally pissed off. Technically it was written yesterday, so I’m not restarting. God damn it.
Tonight has been a dark and stormy night, which makes for an exciting summer evening of wondering where all the flashlights and candles are. It also makes for a terribly cliched, overdone opening scene. Why not start with a bright, sunny day? Or maybe a slightly cloudy afternoon? There are very obvious answers to those questions, of course, and a lot of them point to “the weather is a framing device for some bad event, stupid”.
I have a hell of a time coming up with solid beginning scenes in my work, and far more often than I care to admit. Here are my biggest fears, and how I work to avoid them.
What if this turns into an info-dump?
Exposition happens. Sometimes it’s necessary, but more often than not it can be avoided with better descriptions, stronger characters, and a host of other tricks. When I’m in the moment, working to get that first scene set up, my focus is more on getting words on the page than it is what words are happening. Probably not the best approach, but it certainly helps get writing done. I avoid really thinking about the scene itself, and if it’s an info-dump set-up versus a beginning with merit, until I go back for the first rereading. Or one of my lovely beta-readers catches it. So long as the first page doesn’t read like the rolling opening credits in Star Wars, things are off to an okay start.
Once upon a time? No, wait…
What’s in a first line? A whole lot of hoping to hook readers. A first line, and this is some powerful stating of the obvious here, can make or break if a reader even bothers to continue with a story. While it’s silly, it’s the reason why “Once upon a time” and “It was a dark and stormy night” have become such endearing beginnings. I wouldn’t exactly recommend using them in a work unless you’re going for a very specific tone, though. Getting that perfect first line is something that just happens, I think. All the planning in the world can’t quite prepare for the eureka moment of when the perfect opening sentence happens in your brain.
Let me tell you all about the main character
This falls back into the info-dump, sort of, but it’s its own special sort of pitfall. It’s really tempting to provide an immediate image of the main character. That way the story can move along to the important bits, like the hero saving the day and the villain dying a horrible death. Those sorts of things. But It feels forced. It always feels forced. It’s much more organic, I’ve found, to gradually introduce traits. I’m actually somewhat guilty of giving minimal character descriptions and letting readers fill in details for themselves. It just happens that way.
Start here! No, here! What about here?
In longer stories, novels, and the first book in a series (god help me, I don’t think I could tackle the last one there), it’s hard to choose exactly where to start laying things out for readers. Especially in novels, and probably far more than I can fathom when embarking on the start of a series. I still haven’t figured out exactly how to approach this, as I’ve deleted far too many first pages for my own tastes. Whatever feels most organic isn’t always the best, and so it’s good to depend on outside perspectives here. The best choice will set the stage for the story’s events, providing a logical flow from Point A to Point Z, without jumbling Points B through Y too badly.
These are all pretty simplified, but it should give 1) some insight into how I handle starting a new story, 2) a few of the many issues I have starting new projects, and 3) how I can take complex topics and ruin them by cutting them down to minimal detail.
In any event, I need to drag my sorry ass to bed and hope I survive tomorrow.
Sixty-five days remaining.