The best beginnings possess a magical quality that grabs readers from the first word and never lets them go. But beginnings aren’t just the door into a fiction world. They are the gateway to the realm of publishing—one that could shut as quickly as it opens.
Nail a beginning and you can potentially land yourself a sale, a reader, and maybe a career. But crafting the perfect opening isn’t easy. The best openings are nuanced, touching on craft elements that you’ll use throughout your plot, while also hinting at where your story is headed. That’s why the just-published The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings is such a valuable tool in any writer’s arsenal. Author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to write terrific openings by breaking down essential elements, and dissecting openings that work. The book is filled with exercises, inspirational quotes, and examples from books such as The Martian, A Game of Thrones, Finders Keepers, Beautiful Ruins, and more. Below you can find a short excerpt on the importance of knowing what to share with your reader right away, and what to hold back on.
In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors, and captivate readers. You’ll learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on page one, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques, and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot. You’ll also examine best-selling novels from different genres to learn the secrets that experienced writers use to dive straight into a story.
With thorough examinations of voice, point of view, setting, dialogue, and conflict, this book is a must-have tool for luring your readers in with your opening pages—and convincing them to stick around for the ride.
Too Much, Too Soon
Even when you’ve got an opening scene that either sets up, foreshadows, or introduces your big story idea, that scene can still fail to capture the reader’s attention. One of the main reasons so many opening scenes fail is because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon.
Tell is the critical word here. The writer is telling—rather than showing—us the story. Many scenes are overburdened with backstory, description, and the characters’ inner monologue, which leaves little room for the action that should be driving the story forward.
Remember: What the readers need to know to read the story is not what you needed to know to write it. Because the beginning is usually the first part of the story that you commit to paper, you are just getting to know your characters, setting, plot, and themes. You’re exploring your characters’ voices and histories, your setting’s idiosyncrasies, your plot’s twists and turns and detours and dead ends, your themes’ nuances and expressions. You’re thinking on paper, stretching your way into your story, and that stretching is a critical part of the writing process, but just as stretching before you run is paramount, it’s not part of the run itself. It’s preparation.
So you need to go through and trim the parts of your opening that are obscuring the action so you can get to your big story idea sooner. You need to prune back your writing so that the inherent drama of your story idea is highlighted.
A Trick to Editing Beginnings
If you’re finding it difficult to edit your work, then try this trick. Print out your opening pages, and go through them, marking up the text in different colors to distinguish between backstory, description, and inner monologue. If you prefer to do this on the computer, you can use the “text highlight color” function in Microsoft Word to mark up your story.
- Backstory: Backstory is wherever you talk about what happened in the past, before the present action of your opening scene began—childhood memories, past relationships, etc. Mark these lines/paragraphs/sections in blue.
- Description: These are the lines/paragraphs/sections where you describe your setting, expound on theme, detail backstory, etc. Mark these lines in pink.
- Inner Monologue: These are the parts where you record your character’s thoughts and feelings. Mark them in yellow, and underline the sections in which your character is alone as well.
I know that you’re tempted to skip this exercise. But don’t. Once you finish marking up your hard copy or highlighting your file, you only have to flip or scroll through it to know where you should edit your opening scene. This is one of the most useful exercises you’ll ever do and the one my students, clients, and writing friends always most applaud me for.
Exercise: Turn to Page Fifty
For many writers, this warmup part of the writing process lasts about fifty pages (or around the 12,500- to 18,750-word mark). That’s why I say to writers whose openings are slow, boring, obtuse, or otherwise unengaging: What happens on page fifty of your story?
Page fifty is where many stories truly begin. Turn to page fifty in your story, and see what’s happening there. What’s your protagonist up to? How does that relate to your story idea? Don’t be surprised if this is where your story really begins. And don’t be reluctant to toss out those first forty-nine pages of stretching if that’s what it takes to get your run off to a good start.
Quiet hands are the sure hands of a craftsperson, skillfully shaping raw material into an artful form—the sculptor at her marble, the potter at her wheel. The best writers are craftspeople, too; they recognize that craft matters as much as inspiration—maybe more. In Writing with Quiet Hands, Paula Munier shows writers how to artfully create stories that resonate with agents, editors, publishers, and ultimately, readers. Writers will discover how to manifest inspiration, master the finer points of writing, and lay the groundwork for marketing a finished work.
In Writing with Quiet Hands, Paula draws from her experience as a literary agent, acquisitions editor, marketing professional, and author to teach writers how to listen to their muse, develop their craft, compose their novel, and position the finished work in a way that will entice agents, editors, publishers, and readers alike.