My grandmother used to say, "Well begun is half-done." Grandma was given to bromides that she expected to cover everything from cleaning the hall closet to raising children. Applied to fiction, however, this particular bromide is at least partly correct. Starting your story in the optimum place won't write half of it, but it will make a difference as to whether readers will want to go on reading. Conversely, starting in the wrong place can make them put the thing down after just a few pages, usually never to pick it up again.
So where is the right place to begin a story or novel? That question is not as easy to answer as it seems. For every principle, it's easy to find an exception, sometimes among the best or most successful writing of the last two centuries. To further complicate matters, literary and commercial fiction approach beginnings differently. Nonetheless, let's plunge intrepidly into the morass, and fish up some general guidelines.
Begin with the action
Setting and background can wait. The single most frequent mistake I see in student manuscripts is beginning with a large chunk of description or exposition. The usual argument for this is, "But readers need to know these things in order to understand the action that's going to follow."
Well, no, they don't. Even if your novel occurs in an unfamiliar setting in which all the customs and surroundings will seem strange to your reader, it's still better to start with action. The reason for this is simple. If the reader wanted an explanation of milieu, he would read nonfiction. He doesn't want information. He wants a story.
Begin the story with action. Don't begin with a flashback after spending only a trivial amount of time in the story's present. Introduce important characters in the beginning. Begin with a scene that will introduce a major conflict.
Actually, that's only partly true. Many readers enjoy receiving information on all sorts of subjects, along with their stories. But the information should not be the lead-off.
Consider this opening to Octavia Butler's science-fiction novel Dawn. The novel takes place in one of the most unfamiliar places any reader could ever encounter (trust me on this), but Butler does not start with explanations of where we are (on a living ship in orbit around the moon), with whom (three-sexed aliens) or why (too complex to parenthesize). Instead, Butler begins with something interesting going on, a woman fighting for her life:
Alive ... again.
Awakening was hard, as always. The ultimate disappointment. It was a struggle to take in enough air to drive off nightmare sensations of asphyxiation. Lilith Iyapo lay gasping, shaking with the force of effort.
All the necessary information to fully understand this scene comes later, some in small bits scattered among action, some in passages of description or exposition. But not at the opening. At the start of your story, it's more important to be interesting than to be clear. Interest means action.
But not always. As I said, there are exceptions to each of these guidelines. However, there are also reasons for each exception. John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, begins with an entire chapter of description of the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl. No action at all. Yet the chapter works because the Dust Bowl was such a compelling real-life phenomenon to his audience, because it will be almost a character in itself in the novel, and because Steinbeck's writing is so vivid.
A second example: Jonathan Lethem's literary novel, Motherless Brooklyn, starts with a description of Tourette's syndrome, a brain disorder. If you have a good reason and can write powerful prose, then try starting without action. But understand both that it is harder to do and that the sooner you can get to something actually happening, the better.
Another common mistake is to open with a character doing something trivial for a few sentences or paragraphs, then write something like, "As Jack made the tea he mused on that day last September when Peggy first appeared in his life." This is rarely effective for two reasons. First, we don't yet know anything about Jack's present through which to evaluate his memory of the past. Second, we want to see a story unfold as it happens. We want to be that proverbial fly on the wall, seeing the action and hearing the dialogue and smelling the bacon cooking, with the illusion that we are there as it all occurs.
A flashback robs us of that illusion because, by definition, it says that the scene is already over. Flashbacks do have their uses, of course. They can fill in necessary background. They can be vivid and thrilling scenes in their own right. They can show another side of your character, what he was once as opposed to what he is today. But let flashbacks do all these things later in the story, not in your first scene.
Again, there are exceptions. The most obvious is the frame story, in which the opening makes clear that the entire novel is going to be one extensive flashback, narrated long after the action is over. William Styron's Sophie's Choice, for example, begins this way:
In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower-fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime. I was grateful for that if for nothing else, since my youth, I felt, was at its lowest ebb ... Call me Stingo, which was the nickname I was known by in those days.
This passage illustrates the great virtue of the frame story: It allows the narrator to tell it from two perspectives, youthful and mature. Only an older man looking back could know that, in 1947, his youth had not yet reached its lowest ebb (it will get much worse), or that "Stingo" was only a temporary nickname. This dual perspective lends richness to the story as it unfolds. That richness compensates for the loss of immediacy.
You also can trade immediacy for perspective by using a frame. Just make sure your character has two distinct perspectives: that he feels differently now about the ensuing action than he did when it happened. If not, start your story in story time, not with a flashback.
Begin with major players
In Sophie's Choice, Stingo is the main character. In the Butler novel, Lilith Iyapo is. That's why they dominate the novels' opening scenes.
It may seem obvious to say that your protagonist should appear on stage right away. Yet I see a great many student stories that begin with fully developed scenes between characters who will never appear again. Sometimes these are the protagonists' parents, in order to "give the reader an idea of how the protagonist grew up." Sometimes they are the villains. Sometimes they are spear carriers (servants, people killed earlier by the murderer, etc.), employed to "suggest the world the character lives in." These are fine ideas, but not for your opening scenes.
The reader is going to imprint on the characters he sees first. He is going to expect to see these people often, to have them figure largely into the story, possibly to care about them. Usually, this will be the protagonist. Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman starts thus:
I know I was all right on Friday when I got up; if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual. When I went out to the kitchen to get breakfast Ainsley was there, moping: she said she had been to a bad party the night before. She swore there had been nothing but dentistry students, which depressed her so much she had consoled herself by getting drunk.
"I" (Marian) and Ainsley are the novel's two major characters, and there they are, bam, onstage interacting by the first 68 words. But what of a novel like, say, Anna Karenina, in which Anna does not stroll into the action until Chapter 11? True, the protagonist is absent. But our guideline said, "Start with an important character"; it doesn't have to be the main one. Anna Karenina begins with Stepan Oblonsky, Anna's brother, who also will play an important role in the coming drama.
If you absolutely must begin with those parents or that villain or those magicians, put their scene into a prologue. That signals the reader that the main story hasn't actually begun yet, and so he will withhold his imprinting until it does.
Foreshadow the conflict
Not just any action will do for your opening scene. Showing Lilith Iyapo taking a bath, or Marian and Ainsley preparing dinner and discussing what to buy their mothers for Christmas, would not have been nearly as effective as the scenes Butler and Atwood wrote. This is because each, in differing ways, introduces the major conflicts that will dominate the novels.
Lilith will spend her book struggling to survive against both aliens and humans. And that short tantalizing sentence about survival ("The ultimate disappointment") foreshadows the mixed feelings that Lilith will end up with about the very mixed fate of the human race by the book's end.
Similarly, Marian and Ainsley will spend their novel seeking, dating, and coping with men. There will be a lot of parties, drinking, and depression. There also will be, as the opening hints by its tone, a lot of comedy. Atwood is a satirist.
So where does that leave you and your story? Pull out whatever you're working on now, and read the opening. Does it start with something happening in story time to a major character, which gives us a foretaste of conflicts to come? If so, congratulate yourself; you're off to a good start. If not, how can you rewrite? Some suggestions:
- Start the story later in the plot. Pick an exciting scene that meets the four criteria, write that as your opening, and then drop back to your original opening as flashback about how things reached that exciting event.
- Switch the order of scenes you already have. If you start with minor characters, put that scene later, and move up a scene with the protagonist. Or put your initial opening into a prologue.
- If you started with description or exposition, move it to come after the first scene. You even may find that you don't have to explain so much once we've had some of the information demonstrated for us via action.
A strong beginning is crucial to capturing both readers and editors. Take the time to make it as effective as it can be.