I’ll let you in on a little secret. There is no spoon. *dodges bullets*
For folks who did not get the obscure Matrix reference, don’t fret. For those who did, *high five*.
As human beings, all of us have stories to tell. Stories are born when our inherent creativity meets a general happening that we observe, experience or simply choose to believe in. And everyone likes a good story. *bangs desk to make a point*
As writers, we have the important job of being able to tell a good story. If you’ve been doing this a while, you would know that a good story is one that triggers a certain note with your reader; it could be a particular emotion, or a shared experience, or simply a bit of humor that makes them laugh at the end of a very tough and frustrating day.
It helps if you start well, and keep the pace of the story rolling once you have your reader hooked. I’ve been troubled a few times when it came to starting a new short story or book. Sometimes, the original beginning felt a bit too cheesy. Or the first line was too verbose, with a lot of unnecessary rambling. Or what I read seemed so mundane that I preferred to wash the dishes rather than write some more.
WHY IS THE BEGINNING IMPORTANT?
The first line, first page, first chapter, is what draws the reader towards your book. There are millions of books available in the market, all competing for the same real estate: your reader’s attention. If you believe some of the polls making the rounds on the internet *clicks button*, they found that the average number of book readers across the world was slowly declining. Some also reported that the amount of “garbage” available on the internet was increasing exponentially, thanks to halfhearted writing, lack of editing, and the availability of trigger happy self-publishing. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really great self-published books out there, but they seem to be buried under the sheer millions of distressing, unpolished manuscripts.
So how do I, as a reader, decide if I want to pick up a certain book or not? I’d see the cover first, and seem to like the art work, with the colors and fonts resonating with my sensibilities. I read the blurb, and the story line seems interesting, but not interesting enough for me to take out my credit card and shell out the $10.99 for the book. The next option available is to simply open the book and start reading, and then decide after reading the first page or two pages whether or not the book is worth my time. If you’re buying the book online, most vendors allow you to view a certain percentage of the book online.
The first two pages of your story decide your book’s fate: whether it would spend its days in the gentle and loving hands of your awesome readers, or many a cold night on the lonely store book shelf with the others, waiting to be picked and loved *wipes off a tear*.
In my reading experience, the first paragraph is usually the one that seals the deal.
There are no right answers when it comes to writing that perfect beginning. Here are some thoughts on how to get started, with well, you know, getting started. *shows pearly whites*
KNOW YOUR GENRE
The genre could decide a lot about how your beginning would look like. Thrillers or mysteries could begin with a single short sentence, intended to catch the reader’s attention (I AM SHERLOCK, MASTER OF YOUR MIND). For non-fiction books, it could begin with a simple statement of fact (THE SUN RISES IN THE EAST, AND TODAY WAS THE DAY WHY IT ALL MATTERED). The first line sets the pace for the first page, and so on.
DON’T REVEAL TOO MUCH, OR TOO LITTLE
When writing short stories, some writers lose the plot very early and reveal their subject or motives right in the beginning, making for a very bland story. Think of your story as a wrapped gift box; the reader shouldn’t know what’s inside until they slowly unravel the wrapping paper. It could be a ball, a painting, a book, a water gun. If you didn’t take the trouble to find a box, and your gift is shaped like a ball, bounces like a ball; they know it’s a ball, and there’s no fun in unwrapping the gift, no matter how shiny the paper is *ooh, so shiny*. The first paragraph may introduce the subject of your story, but don’t let the cat out of the bag right at the beginning. Your story needs to unfold slowly, as open as possible at the beginning, but crisp and catchy like a shiny paper.
You can’t visualize a great beginning on thin air. Make an outline on paper. Fill in the words. Write or type them out. Polish them a bit. Then edit the crap out of them. Sleep on it, or watch some TV. Then edit again. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes, what started as the beginning looks better somewhere in the middle, and another idea makes it to the top of your outline.
READ, READ, AND THEN READ SOME MORE
There are some great writers out there who have mastered the problem of great beginnings. Pick up any one of your favorite books and see what the author did right. Pick up a book you put down before and see the difference. Why did you like the first one and not the second? Make notes on what pulled you in, what put you off, and what kept you engaged. Done properly over time, this simple exercise should help you improve your own storytelling.
What are some of your techniques to craft that great beginning? Leave a comment.