As an author, I am sometimes asked how you create a good beginning. If you are thinking of becoming an author yourself, or just want to write something, you need to know how to write a good beginning, especially if it is fiction. When you begin a story you need to hook your reader within the first paragraph. In a novel you need your reader interested within the first two pages. The sooner you engage your reader’s interest, the better. Think about it. Have you ever put a book down because you thought the first few pages were boring?
When I begin a novel, I always try to envision how it should begin. Action sequences are a great way to start a story, especially fantasy or science fiction. In my novel, Galdin, I begin the story with a rebellion. Enemy forces have invaded the castle, the king is dead, and now the queen must escape with her children or perish as well. My reader knows nothing about the cause of the rebellion, only that the main character’s life is suddenly in danger. But that is okay. The point of a beginning is to hook the reader. The details can come later. Though don’t wait too long to give the backstory because your audience will want to know.
Here is how I began Galdin.
Captain Dylan burst through the chamber doors. “We must leave, my lady,” he urged.
The sounds of battle echoed throughout the grounds. Betrayed. The king was dead. Killed by his most trusted general. Captain Dylan had an oath to fulfill. But it was more than that. To Captain Dylan, the king was like a brother. He viewed the king’s family as his own. This would be his final act of loyalty to his king.
In this short paragraph, the you know that a battle is taking place and everyone’s lives are in danger. There is a sense of urgency.
Now, not all stories need to begin with an action sequence. In my Mellow Summers Series I start out differently.
My name is Mellow Summers and I am twenty-six years old. I was never one to believe in ghosts, but all that changed the day I decided to attend a university up in Vermont. I don’t know why I wanted to go to Vermont considering that I hate the cold. I guess I just wanted to get away from my parents for a while who had made it their mission in life to tell me how to live. Anyway, like I said, I never believed in ghosts. That is not until I met Rachel.
So she never believed in ghosts. What made her change her mind? Who is Rachel? In this first paragraph you have the main character’s name and where she lives. You also have the gist of the story: who is Rachel and what did she do to change Mellow’s mind about the existence of ghosts?
Imagine if I had begun the story with “My name is Mellow Summers” and stopped right there. Would care about the character? Probably not. But add: the bit about how she never believed in ghosts until she moved to Vermont and met Rachel and you have something completely different.
Well, here’s a question: who is Rachel?
Consider how J.K. Rowling began Harry Potter. In the first few pages we learn meet Harry as an infant as he left on the doorstep of his aunt and uncle’s house. We know that he is considered a hero in the wizarding world and that his parents are dead. But we are left with the question: what did this baby do to be considered a hero? And why does Dumbledore think Harry will be safer with his aunt and uncle who are obviously not part of this magical world of wizards and witches?
When writing the opening sequence to your story you need to answer two questions:
1. What is the story?
2. Why should we care?
In the first question, you set the tone for your book. After the first two paragraphs, you reader should know whether your book is an adventure story, fantasy, a mystery, or a romance.
Then, you have to make your reader care about your characters. You do this by getting them to unknowingly ask questions. In Harry Potter you want to know who he is and why he is called the boy who lived. With Mellow Summers you want to know Rachel is and how she got Mellow to change her mind about ghosts. With Galdin you want to know if Captain Dylan succeeds in saving the queen and her children.
And the number one way to know if you have a beginning is this: if it doesn’t engage you, the author, then it won’t engage your reader.