Where do I begin?
Who cares? The beginning
is the very last thing you should worry about.
in. Start writing anything you can any way you can. Even if youve
got the storyline mapped out, dont feel obliged to begin at
the beginning lots of writers begin with whatever scene is
strongest in their minds. It might be a significant turning point,
it might be the very end. It doesnt matter.
Perhaps you dont
have a story, just a character. Lets call him Billy. Billys
doing what? Where? When? Why? Ah
why hes doing it could
be the whole point of the story, so at least you know how you dont
want to start, and youve begun to develop the plot into the
bargain, because now you want to know why Billys doing
what hes doing, and your imagination is taking off.
Maybe you only have a scene.
You dont know what its about, but there it is, and it
wants to be written. So write it; the image of a woman in a cloak
on the cob at Lyme Regis was all John Fowles had when he began to
write The French Lieutenants Woman.
If you write whatever is
in your head, the mere act of putting the words down on paper will
help whatever it is come into focus, and youll begin to see
where you want to go next. And dont worry if where you want
to go next isnt what happens next that doesnt
matter either. You might have thought of another character, and
want to develop him or her. You might have imagined some background
to the scene which will have to be in place long before the scene
itself, or something thats going to happen way in the future.
Dont worry about that. Just get it down.
I write my books from beginning
to end, just as they are read, but the words I put down on the blank
page will not necessarily remain at the beginning, or at all
I removed the first chapter of my first novel altogether. But writing
it got me under way, brought the characters into being, and gave
them a setting to move around in. What they were doing in that first
chapter was significant, but the result of what they were
doing was even more significant, and I chose to start with that
result a dead body.
all you know is that you want to write, but you have no story, no
plot, no characters. Thats not at all unusual, and if that
is how you feel, then perhaps you could try one or two of the Penbenders,
because that will get you writing about something, and once youre
doing that, a story could emerge. Or try writing about yourself
fictionalise your day. Write about it in the third person,
perhaps. Make the day happen the way you would have liked it to
happen; daydream. Its all creative, and if you are a writer,
a story will come.
Finally, its possible that you have a finished
novel, and you still dont know where it should start. If you
can, put it away for a couple of weeks. Longer, if possible. Then
take it out, and read it. You might find that a sentence half-way
through the first chapter would be perfect for the opening. You
might find out you dont need all the stuff that went before
it, or that you do, but not right at the start. Or you might find
that what youve got is what you want, but that it could be
punchier, or more intriguing, or less mystifying. Or you might
just might - have begun exactly as you should, but
you just didnt realise you had.
Before you turn that draft
into your final manuscript thats when you make sure
that the opening is as good, as arresting as you can make
it; thats when you lop off the first chapter, or write the
one you need to insert before what youve written; thats
when you move all that background detail to a little later on, so
that the story begins with significant action, rather than exposition,
or take a step back and set the scene.
What makes a good beginning?
Well, Horace said that it was a good idea to take the audience right
into the middle of things as if they knew already, and even though
he said that two thousand years ago, its still a good idea.
(Most of what Horace said is worth listening to.) The reader wont
mind having to wait for a page or two before he understands why
your opening character is involved in a furious row, or hysterical
with laughter, or running for his life. Providing he can believe
in this character and his situation, the reader will be intrigued,
and that is what will make him turn the page, in order to find out
whats going on, what brought it about, and vitally
what is going to happen next.
not all novels begin in the middle of the action sometimes
doing that means that there will be too much exposition later on,
when you explain to the reader what happened before he got there.
That can hold up the story, and leave the reader feeling as though
hes marking time.
a slower build up is necessary. But slow doesnt equal boring;
what you are doing is introducing the reader to your characters,
letting him get to know them before the drama begins, and getting
to know someone new is rarely boring. Its sometimes a good
idea, in that situation, to use humour, which serves two purposes;
one, it entertains the reader and stops him wondering when the actions
going to start, and two, light-heartedness throws the subsequent
drama into relief, making it that much more dramatic.
The couple laughing and
joking moments before one of them is run over by a bus, the delivery-boy
whistling cheerily before finding the body - these are clichéd situations
these days, especially on TV - but that, in effect, is what you
might try to achieve, if with a little more subtlety. You show things
and people ticking along nicely, making the reader smile, and then
The volcano erupts. The man gets a Dear John. The woman discovers
shes pregnant. The headmaster finds out his son cheated in
The reverse works to some
extent, in humorous novels; something apparently serious turning
out to be funny can be very effective. But its as well to
indicate that a novel is humorous as soon as possible, even with
the blackest of humour. Irony is something that is lost on most
readers; face that now, and youll save yourself a lot of heartache,
Whatever kind of novel
youre writing, the rule of thumb is to ask yourself what event
brings your story into being, and to start as close in time to that
event as you possibly can. In the case of my first novel, it was
the murder of a young woman, and in the end, I began with her body
use the words in the end, I began advisedly: the opening
is very important when youre trying to impress an agent or
publisher, but no one needs to see the first draft but you, so start
any way at all, and think about the beginning when everything is
a little clearer, a little more ordered.
In other words, dont
give a thought to the beginning until youve got to the end.