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blog From First Word to Last, Part 1: Beginnings

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, Jun 2, 2019.

  1. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Caged Maiden submitted a new blog post:

    From First Word to Last, Part 1: Beginnings
    by A. Howitt

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    Opening lines are touted as some of the most important of a story. How-To books and author blogs tell us to engage, captivate, immerse, excite—and to stop at nothing less. But what is the secret to an amazing story opening? Why do stories seem to succeed or fail on page one?

    In the Beginning

    Let’s be honest, stories open in different ways. Sometimes the focus leans toward the character’s feelings and thoughts, or their background; sometimes the plot and conflict are the majority of what’s going on; and sometimes the setting is extra special, becoming the focal point of the story’s opening. But in the most basic terms available, a story begins with a character…doing something…somewhere.

    I think of the “who, what (including a why), and where” as the three legs of a stool, because a stool works on even a bumpy surface, or if one leg is slightly shorter or longer (like most stories). Regardless of what is most prominently featured, the balance created by three legs working together helps a reader feel immersed and interested in what is going on.

    Sometimes writers want to create a mystery by intentionally leaving one of those elements out. Perhaps the character has amnesia and doesn’t know who he is…or he awakes in a place he doesn’t recognize. Those things can work…but it’s rare, because to compensate for one missing leg, the stool’s other two need to be made much more...

    Continue reading the Original Blog Post.
     
    FifthView likes this.
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I enjoyed this article.

    "In late, out early" has a little more depth and significance than what you've written here—but in this context, it's also great. Making worlds and characters feel real requires giving the impression they both existed before the story starts. The issue is like the problem with starting a written history, say of the Roman Empire or the American Revolution. Where do you start? With every starting point, there's a wealth of info, events, personalities that came before and greatly affected that starting point, so maybe you should start the history earlier? But that could go back and back forever. In fiction, going back too far will often sap the energy of the present experience for the reader, but giving the impression that there was a "before" is also very good. The character didn't just spring into existence at the beginning of the first page. The character and world are in the midst of an ongoing stream of history; particularly, the character is in the midst of a personal history, and her present will have been greatly affected by what has occurred before the start of the story.
     
  3. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    I like prologues so long as they provide some hook that makes me excited about what's to come.

    Some of my favorite books have a sort of "this is a dire situation I'm in...let me tell you how I came to be here," sort of intro. Or they give a glimpse of the situation from someone other than the narrator. Or introduce the narrator before the story.

    All of those get me pretty excited about the story...because they function as a HOOK. What gave prologues a bad rap is the wide angle lenses that panned through the scenery or history books. If the beginning of a story needs some info for context, it's okay to use the prologue to do that, but it has to be a hook.

    It has to get the reader excited and asking questions. If a prologue/ information up front is not for the reader's immediate enjoyment, then it's for the writer's...which is the wrong reason to include information in a story no matter where it falls.
     
  4. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Thanks for your comment! Yeppers, "in late, out early" is a great subject, deserving more than a mention, but it's probably a whole long article all on its own. Glad you enjoyed the article. Totally agree the starting point is a tough thing to pick.

    When I write, I try to start in the now, whatever the character is doing at this moment, but it just isn't always possible. So, whenever I break the rules a little, I try to do so when it'll have the most impact and do the work I really need it to do. For example, my current story begins with a flashback, which I know isn't recommended, but it's integral to the whole book and the book after, as well. The message is right up front, a look at the character's past, and one bit of advice she got as a girl...that will follow her throughout her life and form the major theme of the entire story.

    So...yes, history exists, and sometimes all you can do it pick the most important bit of history to show up front, and then let the rest of it enter the story when it's most important to the story context.

    Thanks!
     
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  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    "Instead, a great opening scene starts in the middle of a sequence of events."

    Beyond simply the backstory or a lengthy personal history, a character's "now" at the beginning is really in the middle of a sequence of more recent events. This is the part of the article that struck me most.

    So for instance if I start a book with an apprentice mage cleaning the muck from the stable...well, he's there for a reason. Perhaps he's being punished for something that he did the previous day. Perhaps he and his master received notice that the King's retinue would be stopping at their remote inn, for respite from long travels, and he's found himself mucking out a stable that has been neglected for many months, heh.

    Either of these two scenarios could also introduce some hints about the main story, whether plot or character arc or both. Would we need to first have a scene with the apprentice doing something bad (on the previous day) and then being told to muck out the stable? Would we need to first have the apprentice and his master sitting at a late breakfast, receiving a surprise messenger who tells them the King will be stopping by tomorrow? No, probably not, and starting in the middle of this sequence of events can introduce questions for the reader, hooking the reader into a mode of discovery about what's happening.

     
  6. It took me years to realize that those first lines/scenes often came along and take final form after I'd written much of the rest of the story. I've been a big fan of working backwards of late, knowing where my story ends and then finding my way to the beginning of the tale and each character arc. I've crafted dozens of first lines and paragraphs for everything I have ever written and in the end, no matter how much I liked them at the time, they changed.

    They're so much fun to come up with though.

    > What do you think makes a story succeed on page one?

    At their best, first pages offer a succession of well thought out lines and paragraphs that give us the setting/world, the main character(s), the genre and the tone, and they kept us asking questions. Prologues are often the subject of a lot of debate but, for me, they're fine so long as chapter one is just as appealing/attention getting when it does begin.

    You've nailed most of it in the blog. Personally, I'm not a fan of high action from the word go (unless that truly is the everyday world of the character) Something subtler and less frantic to welcome me in is more appealing.

    Off the top of my head is Victoria Schwab's understated opening line from 'Darker Shade of Magic', "Kell wore a very peculiar coat."

    It's all there in six words: our main character, action ( I assume if Kell has a need to wear a peculiar coat, theres a reason for it and I'll find out what that is soon) and it gets me asking the questions. . . how is the coat peculiar? what is he doing? Where is he? All of which are answered in rapid succession in the lines that follow.

    A great first page can also set up a quick and unexpected twist. Who thought chapter one of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card would conclude for the main character as it did after reading page one?

    > What do you think makes a story fail on page one?

    By the end of page one, you should be able to answer the who (main character) and have some sense of the what (scene goal/action) when (setting/time of day etc) where (scene location) and why (some hint at the character's motivation). Usually when I am stuck, I download the samples of dozens of books on Kindle or go to the library and read just their first pages. If, regardless of genre, it makes me want to continue through the chapter, (and this happens even in genres I never read) I know there is something in that first page I should be looking at as a writer.

    In the example I gave above, the coat is not only peculiar, it's important! It better be. I don't want to hear about clothing right off unless it truly matters. So many of us love describing the clothing, (we've invested time in dressing these characters after all) but often it comes with little thought as to why they are wearing what they have on or if it's important enough to include. It should matter. Climate, social engagement, combat etc. if it isn't part of the scene/story, it's not needed. This is especially true on page one.

    > Have a great hook? Let’s hear your opening lines!


    So, still in progress and since I work from end t beginning, it may change, but here is the original opening line I first thought of for the WIP fantasy novel I'm writing ( it was actually the initial inspiration for the entire tale)

    "No one, as far as I can tell, has ever left the Bewildering Pine and returned."
     
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