As writers, we’re so often told that the beginning of our story is make or break. It’s what we show our critique groups, our workshops, and agents when we query. It’s the first thing that readers see; it’s the first chance that they have to fall in love.
I want to look at this idea of falling in love with a story literally. Structurally. Because if it’s true that we fall in love with stories, that can tell us a lot about how to make our beginnings work.
The other night, I was watching the movie Music and Lyrics. As the two characters in this romcom got to know each other, they revealed little bits of their personalities and their pasts, leaving larger questions open. There were little mysteries, patterns, things that we knew would resurface. (Her current employment as a plant waterer had to have a backstory—right? He was definitely going to do the cute eighties dance move again—right?) These two wanted to know more about each other. They had to see each other again, to find out what happens next. Every time the characters talked to each other, they were building a relationship, and even within the neat timeline of a romcom, they couldn’t do it all at once. They were leading each other forward, step by step. That’s not just how we fall in love with each other. That’s how we fall into a fictional world.
At the beginning of a story, a writer can’t unload everything on the reader all at once. That results in dreaded info dumps. Instead of thinking of the beginning as the place where you have to makeeverythinghappenrightnow, try thinking of it as a first date. I think there are two elements of a successful first date that mirror the balance that we strive for in a story opening.
First—there’s what you put in to your beginning. That’s like the first date itself. The events (plot), the chemistry of the people involved (characters), the conversation, (voice), the physical attraction (maybe that’s about genre, or premise—I don’t know, but I could do this extended metaphor thing all day!)
How do we make the all-important decision of what to put in, though? This is where the individual story comes in, as well as writing style and taste. Often when we hear the “rules” of how you’re supposed to start a story, they feel flat, prescriptive. Imagine if you tried to follow the steps in a first date manual in order to find true love. The process has to be organic and personal—it’s about what you and your story bring to the table that no one else can. Focus on what makes your story unique. I’ve heard a hundred times never to start with a long description of setting in kidlit—and then there the opening of Tuck Everlasting. We’re often warned to get straight to the story, but there are so many great books that start with character-focused monologues. Anything can work—if it’s what makes your story special, what pulls the reader in and leaves them enchanted, delighted, a little bit in love.
And then there’s the second element of the date, which is a little more intangible. It’s what you’re leaving out. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that we are sucked into stories by little mysteries. This is the not the mystery genre I’m talking about—I mean any question that the narrative plants in our minds. The same is true with people. After the first date, we might like what we know—but we have to want to know more!
Recently, I read an interview with the YA author Laini Taylor, author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. She admitted that when she started out writing about her main character, she knew that Karou had blue hair and hamsas on her hands, but she didn’t know why. She was writing to find out what happened next. The beginning was about what Taylor didn’t know—and now those same questions pull readers into her story in huge numbers. (And yes, get them to fall in love!)