In the beginning

(Crossposted from Fangs Fur & Fey)

Topic of the Month:
“How do you find the beginning of your novels? How do you know where to start them?”

Teh Experts on writing say stories should start in medias res — in the middle of things — on the day where circumstances change for the main character.  This is exciting, They say, and engages us readers right away, sweeping us up into the tale’s thrills and chills and whatnot.

I usually start my stories… oh, about four chapters earlier.

This is a disaster.  And not the kind of disaster that engages the reader.  Not even the trainwreck kind, where you can’t help but watch.  It’s a grimmer, slower disaster, like an earthquake that buries life and hope under a thousand tons of concrete, rebar and asbestos.

I write about four chapters of set-up, throat clearing, scene setting, backstory, navel gazing, and historical irrelevancy.  When all else fails, I start the damn story.  But by then, I have to bring in the rescue team.  I need a SAR dog (my faithful cold reader) to pinpoint the victim and a backhoe (a red pen and delete key) to dig deep.  By the time I finally bring the start of the story to light, it’s usually in need of some serious first aid — I find a shot of adrenaline directly to the heart always helps.

As a long-time judge in writing contests, I’ve noticed that other writers struggle with the same issue: Starting a story too early.  Happily, they seem to get around to their true starts quicker than four chapters.  But I suspect many aspiring novelists lose their way in the first ten thousand words and are unable to pull the story from the rubble before their love for it dies.

Here are a few ways I’ve tried to solve my perennial little problem:

Starting with an action scene:
But establishing the setting (alley? boardroom? bedroom?) while my heroine is roundhouse kicking somebody in the jaw is always a trick.  Plus, there’s that pesky question of why is she roundhouse kicking somebody in the jaw?  I mean, of course she’s justified, but it’s even hard to tell who she’s kicking with the way his head keeps snapping back.

Starting with a love scene:
All the problems above, plus the squick voyeristic factor of watching two (or thereabouts) people I don’t know going at it.  Er, since somehow knowing the two people makes it less voyeristic.  Anyway.

Starting with a prologue:
I love prologues.  I can fit all four chapters worth of engine revving into four pages.  It’s efficient at least, since it’s quicker to delete.

Starting with a dream sequence:
Ooh, establishing a mood — the artiste‘s excuse for navel gazing.  Plus, dream sequences just cry out for many, many adjectives.  But that’s a different failing of mine.

Starting with a dream sequence prologue:
Just kidding.  I haven’t done this one…  Oh wait, yes I did.  I had a medieval romance with a unicorn.  But I was cleverly avoiding the question of whether the unicorn was real… or a dweam.  So of course I had to start it there.

Obviously, I need some more starting places.  Do you have a favorite kind of starting scene?  Slow and intimate?  A swooping overview?  What kind of opening lures you in?


3 thoughts on “In the beginning

  1. Ah! Yes! Um… Action? Starting with the heroine in the car, talking to her car, pinpointing strategic backstory clues, before arriving at the primary setting, meeting hero.

    Bone chilling drama/dreams? Heroine comes down the stairs for her morning coffee, notices the full moon mark on the calendar, and blames that for her jumbled dreams.

    Damn, I need a roundhouse kick to my head because I’m always thrilled when I begin chapter 4.

  2. I like a hook at the beginning. It doesn’t always have to be action, but a hook right off the start usually pushes me past the first few chapters of a book. And by that point, a few chapters in, if my attention hasn’t been held, I usually move on. Most recently, I read ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy’ and the demolition of a certain blue planet provided me with the required hook to get through the book.

  3. I like to start by dropping into a story either immediately before a devastating event, or immediately following one. Of course, that doesn’t mean I actually DO so, but I like the idea! My contemporary romance starts off with a character intro; my paranormal WIP with a prologue…I’m guessing that both must work in their own ways as the romance is contracted and the WIP has found an agent. So…maybe the beginning of a story has to be individual and true to the story itself? Hmm…wandering away to ponder this dilemma now…


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