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Normal beginnings

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Garren Jacobsen, Jun 14, 2017.

  1. So, I have heard several times that your beginnings need punch, pizzazz, yahoo and how. The punch needs to be emotional somehow. Often times the advice says it needs to happen right on the first page. However, I find myself not really liking those beginnings and I feel like when I try it it's so boring, lifeless even.

    I've also noticed a trend in my writing my beginnings are...normal. Not like normal in the writing world but normal in the sense that characters are doing normal things. One character is coming home from an early morning job and starts flirting with a girl, conlfict ensues at the end when his family tries to dissuade him from going to the magical college of his dreams, which he of course tells his family to go suck a salty nut. Or, in another book, a middle aged father comes home from work, plays with his son, and watches helplessly as his son kidnapped on the last page of the first chapter by magic cultists. Another book, an attorney is making his closing arguments, accepts a new and crazy case, then loses the case he argues.

    Those book openings are very...normal. Emotional? Sure, but normal. Do those openings fly in the face of convention? Is that a bad thing? Will readers be bored? Am I overthinking this and misunderstanding the advice (this is likely), tell me oh sages!
     
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Normal, or mundane? Two different things. I like mundane. It helps the reader connect to the character and makes the cool stuff more interesting when it happens later.

    Fiction does not need to open with a bang, it needs to open with a hook. Again, not the same things. A hook simply raises a question. "Will the guy get the girl's number?" is enough.
     
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  3. Let's go with the Dad story. He comes home and his goal is to get his son's jamies on. The son fights him, because two year olds are jerks sometimes but its also kind of fun. Kid goes down for sleep then bang home invasion kidnapping. Hook or no hook? (I recognize this is difficult to answer in the abstract)
     
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Maybe we should discuss normal, mundane, and boring.

    I think the above example will depend somewhat on the length of the chapter. If it's fairly short, then having that kidnapping happen on the last page could work pretty well. If the chapter's longer, a large number of pages of the father coming home and putting jammies on the kid could be incredibly boring.

    But there may be other terms. The Writing Excuses podcast crew has often used the idea of "blending the familiar and the original" which, although usually applied to general story ideas, might apply here too.

    So let's say the coming-home-putting-jammies-on-child is the familiar. We could add another layer that is less familiar. Let's say that day, there was a large disturbance at the office; the boss's two children were murdered the night before by their baby sitter. We've heard those stories, but they aren't really familiar to us, because most of us haven't experienced that. So when the father's putting the jammies on his own kid, this horrible day makes the activity much different than his normal experience (and ours.)

    Or let's say there's a small framed photograph on the dresser in the kid's room. It's the father's father, who died in Desert Storm when he (the kid's father) was ten years old. And the photo is on the dresser because the father likes feeling that his own father watches over his son.

    And there are lots of little details like that we can use to make the familiar a little different, unusual, or at least more meaningful.

    Of course, you could add a wilder original element, like the father has been violating the laws and cloning humans at work, modifying those clones to have better resistance to disease and longer life spans. Or, whatever.
     
    C. A. Stanley and Heliotrope like this.
  5. Ruru

    Ruru Troubadour

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    I like mundane beginnings. As Heliotrope said, it helps the reader connect with the story. I also think a normal beginning to a story helps set a contrast with whatever event the story will be about. Starting in the thick of it can (though not always) make it hard to make future chapters seem more dramatic or intense, compared to starting with an everyday scene. A hook is important; there has to be a reason to keep reading, and I don't think you could stretch the 'normality' on for too long, but starting this way has a nice, unhurried appeal to it. Show how good things were for your characters before the events of the story get involved! :)
     
  6. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I agree with FifthView, I can't know without reading it. Of course execution is key. I tend to prefer magical realism and urban fantasy to traditional fantasy, so a beginning like you described does not bother me if done well.

    An example I would use would be something like the the Robin Williams film "Hook". Same premise, the father struggles with day to day, mundane issues with his young children, then one night they are kidnapped and he sets out to rescue them. I think the film started by showing how the father, Peter, is always too busy for the children. It introduced the problem, which was he was more focussed on work than appreciating his children. Of course, this will be his character arc, and what he needs to overcome in order to rescue them. He will have to rediscover his own sense of childishness.

    So in your case, if you were to present the mundane beginning in a way that shows a problem, and hints at a character arc, then it might work.

    It all must tie together to the big picture.
     
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Nothing wrong with normal, boring is another issue. I open with a game of dice, but the game isn't something you know, and it's a bunch of priests and monks in a cave playing the game. Familiar, but you know you aren't in Kansas... so to speak. That said, the dice game plays into the character, but also plays into an event 140k words later, and further into book 2. But it still has a hint of the normal, the familiar, it's not life and death, it's not a bomb going off.

    Personally, I think it works.
     
  8. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    One of the things the first act to a story is supposed to do is show the reader what life is typically like for protagonist before the story world takes over. It depends on your character and what's 'normal' for them, so doing typical mundane things wouldn't be out of the question if your protagonist is just a normal person. The key is to make these mundane things interesting to the reader.

    If memory serves the opening chapter of Game of Thrones has Bran accompanying his father, Ned, as he goes about his duties as Lord of Winterfell. The chapter shows what a day-in-the-life is like for house Stark.

    If you think about all the action openings to Bond movies, part of the reason they're there is to show what a day-in-the-life of Bond, the super spy, is like.

    How about the Harry Potter books? If memory serves, don't they all generally start with Harry back in the normal, mundane world with the Dursleys, where he's being treated badly, before he goes back to school?

    Check out the books you've read. If you look closely, I'll bet most start with a what's normal for the protagonist situation.
     
  9. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    GoT and Bran is an interesting one... there is the usual, but it sure isn't a day in the life as they head out for Bran to witness an execution for the first time. It establishes the norm of relationships (and a bit of culture) but it also puts us smack in the middle of a tense situation from a newbie POV. Life lessons and blood. Then they find dire wolf pups. So, it's a mixed bag, which is what I personally prefer in opening chapters. It also had a prologue to set the tension and explain who the guy getting whacked was and why he'd fled.
     
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    So maybe it depends on what normal describes: normal for the characters or normal for the reader?

    Or exchange "normal" for "mundane."

    When thinking of hooking a reader or interesting a reader, I tend to think of what is normal for the reader rather than what's normal for the characters.

    Heck, normal for the characters might be quite exotic for the readers.

    So those examples of GoT, Harry Potter, and the like are a little concept-breaking for me, here. "Yeah, go ahead and begin your story by showing the everyday, mundane life of your characters!" Well, the mundane might be sitting in front of a television all day playing video games, with mother bringing snacks every few hours. Do you want to read a chapter that is little more than a description of 8 hours playing of Minecraft solo? Let's say, 20 pages of that. But if the mundane life of the character involves pixies, dragons, demons, and the MC's body magically altering every few hours—an automatic, unpreventable, normal organic experience for the MC in that world—well, you can brag to all your writer friends that you have NO problem starting out with the mundane for every novel you write, heh.

    This kinda folds back into the idea of "blending the familiar and the original." I hate the word original there because we all know almost everything we write has been done before in some fashion, heh. But for me the words familiar and original are relative to the reader, not the character. Same with normal and mundane. Maybe that blend is sometimes a blend of two different mundanes: the reader's and the character's. But there's enough of a gap between those to interest a reader.

    When I'm thinking of hooking the reader, then I'm thinking of those terms as they describe the reader's experience.

    I do think there's room for discussing those ideas in terms of the character's experience. You could start a book with a boy living under the stairs, which is normal for him, or you could start the same book with the opening lines, "Harry dropped his sack lunch and froze. Something like a dragon from the story books had appeared above him and now dived, eyeballs fixed on Harry and toothy maw wide open. It was as if the dragon did not want Harry to take his algebra test today."

    So...yes, there's a difference between the two approaches. The latter is a little like the "explosions in the first or second paragraph" approach, and in comparison the former might seem like "starting with the mundane" approach. But for the reader, imagining life sleeping in a little cubby beneath the stairs, being mistreated by adoptive parents...That might be normal for some potential readers, but not for the majority, I'd think. (Plus, if you've already had a super-long prologue called "Chapter One" in which the adoptive parents are paranoid about and hateful toward wizards, and the wizards worry about leaving a boy with such muggles, then that scenario of living under the stairs and being mistreated takes on an even less mundane flavor for the reader.)
     
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2017
  11. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    There seems to be a trend more toward in media res as an approach to openings, as opposed to setting up the "normal" situation before moving on to the events that upset that normalcy. As a reader, I am fine with either approach so long as the opening is interesting. Whatever you do, don't bore me. If you're starting with normal life, I think a strong voice and the ability to create a quick connection between the reader and characters are helpful.

    One advantage the "normal" opening has in SF/F is that the world in which the story takes place is typically not the real world, and so starting with a bit of normal life in that world allows the author to establish just what is normal and what isn't. Being grounded in the normal workings of the world allows the reader to react to whatever sets up that normalcy.

    I feel as though the story proper generally starts when something upsets the normalcy, so even when using a "normal" opening, I would start as close to the beginning of the story as possible while still allowing for the author's goals in using the "normal" opening.
     
  12. I don't think beginnings need punch and pizzazz. Actually, I think a flashy, action-packed beginning can betray that the author's trying to make up for the beginning's emotional vapidness. All you need is to get your reader to care.

    All the beginnings you mention seem perfectly fine and interesting. Depending on execution of course, they could be perfect for pulling in the reader.

    Edit: This is coming from someone who has her MC slit a guy's throat in the second sentence of her WIP. But, in a way, that *is* a normal beginning, because kill or be killed is very much the MC's day to day life.

    But generally, flashy beginnings bore me. They don't make me feel invested, they make me feel BORED. (Mainly talking about the action-packed sort here.) But, flashy details aren't what pulls us in and invests us in a story. It's the characters, what they want, what they are thinking and feeling.

    Punch and pizzazz doesn't equal a hook.

    Maybe go back over your favorite books and note the moment you felt hooked? What did it for you?
     
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2017
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I also think that a SF/F world may present plenty of opportunity for setting up that "reader's mundane" vs "character's mundane" stimulus to create interest.

    A lot of stories set in our own boring, mundane world may need to rely on other things. This may be why MCs might have peculiar flaws, quirks, interests, histories. E.g., the drunk, the sociopath, the collector of unusual items, the former spy, whatever. Or unusual family dynamics or family histories. (Earlier this morning I was thinking about The Brady Bunch.) It's not as if SF/F can't do these things as well, nor that non-SF/F can't use unusual milieus.

    Then there's the problem that what a reader may find "normal" could be something he's read many times rather than lived, himself. So when a character seems identical to 20 other characters from books he's read, or when elves and dwarves are basically like every elf or dwarf or else come across as basically just humans with the tag "elf" or "dwarf," that might seem boringly "normal" to the reader.
     
  14. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    This can be a chicken and egg situation. But I find it fascinating that you connect fighting/action with a lack of emotion. If written well these are some of the most emotional scenes in a book or movie. The typical "emotional" scene can be as vapid as any fight sequence. And let's face it, emotion is tricky, what gets one person fired up will mean nothing to another.

     
  15. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Let me try to tap dance around this a little. It is, from my perspective, still a typical day-in-the-life. Yes, it's a more interesting day--which is probably a good place to start--but it's still representative of what normal life is like for House Stark. A child of House Stark witnessing an execution isn't unusual. I can't remember if it's explicitly stated, but I got the impression that each son was required to do this. It was part of the lessons Ned taught to his children.

    As for the prologue, I think the chapter still works without the prologue. The prologue just adds another layer.
     
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  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I don't have a strong memory of that first chapter, but I think maybe the execution was normal for House Stark, not normal for Bran.

    I guess we could start an urban fantasy YA tale by having the MC go in for his first driver's test, or maybe start his first day at his first job ever, or having sex for the first time. Very normal, mundane things but entirely new for the POV character.

    But these aren't quite like having that same POV character kill a burglar in the first chapter, heh.
     
  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Works without the prologue... sure. The book could work without the execution too, or the wolves, for that matter. But, no prologue, and the execution is nothing to me.

     
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  18. Well, if the burglars stopped eating his friend bread (as in bread made from his friend's soul) we wouldn't have problems now, would we?
     
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  19. Aurora

    Aurora Sage

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    The beginning just needs to be engaging, is all. It must have conflict, voice, and good characterization. How one begins a book (boring or flashy) doesn't matter so long as it has the ^^. For me, anyway.

    The more I write, the less I worry about the beginning being perfect. I start with character and a good place to introduce the reader to this character and advance towards the conflict. My wip starts with the heroine hunting in the woods and by the end of the page, her conflict is introduced via conversation with another character.

    A last thing, OP have you considered analyzing books you like that are also similar to yours? Study their pacing. How they open. THis helps more than one would think. Good luck.
     
  20. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Without the prologue, there's something lost, but that doesn't change the fact that the execution is part of everyday, "normal", life.

    As for removing the execution, to do that you'd have to rewrite the whole chapter, not just simply decide not include it. So it's not the same thing. The execution is part of the story. The prologue is by definition outside of the story.
     
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