Friday, September 18, 2009


I don't know a single writer that got the beginning right on their first try. Personally, I've written 7--that's right--SEVEN different beginnings for Oracle. I'm still on my first for Insomnia--but I'm seriously considering a new one.

Beginnings have so many jobs. They have to:

1 - Hook the reader
~ It can be with emotion, attitude, action, voice, whatever works! Know the in's and out's of your genre intimately.

2 - Establish a bond between the reader and the MC (Main Character)
~ Some relatable emotions: sympathy, likability, inner conflict, empathy

3 - Establish the tone of the story
~ Make it clear who your genre and audience are, keep it consistent

4 - Introduce conflict
~ Who and Why are the first questions that have to be answered. Your reader won't care where they are until they decide if they care about your characters.

5 - Compel the reader to KEEP READING
~ If your reader doesn't feel the NEED to do this, they might not continue--then it doesn't matter what else you do.

That is a serious amount to expect from the first chapter, it's no wonder they are so hard to write--but guess what. The first chapter probably isn't enough. You probably need to do that in the first page or two if you want to really grab that reader.

Another crucial part to a beginning is the promise. Every conflict expects a resolution. You are promising to resolve it in one way or another. It is important we keep that promise for the reader.

One of the hardest things about beginnings is deciding when to begin. Here are a few tips I've learned lately:

~ Make a Timeline
*** When does the story start chronologically? When does it start emotionally? How does it end? Try different things, different openings. The first beginning you write will almost never be the one you actually use. Always remember: Start Late/End Early. Allowing the reader to enter when the action does and leave when the action does keeps up the momentum.

~ Don't use Gimmicks or Crutches
*** A reader will see through action that is unessential to the story. Dreams, withholding information the Main Character knows, throwing in a shocking scene that otherwise has no point--these are almost always cheating. The story itself should hook the reader. The fact that they are reading your book means they are instilling a certain amount of trust in you to write it correctly. Don't cheat them, or that trust will be gone.

~ To Prologue, or Not to Prologue
*** How do you know if you need it? Nathan Bransford did a great post on this awhile back in which he said if the story was complete without it, then you should take it out. Prologues that are there to set the mood are unnecessary. Make the story set the mood. If a prologue is necessary then it should be short, self-contained, and comprehensible.

~ Trust Your Instincts (For me, this was the hardest one to learn)
*** Ultimately, this is your story. Only you know the right way to tell it.


  1. Great advice, Jenn! Beginnings are rough, but I still like them better than middles. That's my personal crutch.

  2. When I first began this book I started with a specific scene then I thought I needed more of a build in. Now after a few more tries, I've gone back to my original starting place.

  3. I've rewritten my beginning several times, too. It's hard to get all that in there, isn't it? This is a great list to include, though. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I've written two very different beginnings for my WIP. I like it better the more I rewrite it. I've also tried prologues in the past--I decided they make it harder. It's better just to start at the start.

    I love that you emphasized tone because I think appropriate tones for the first chapter are (and should be) very different from one genre to another.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Do NOT rewrite the beginning of Insomnia! That's my two cents at least. It's great just the way it is.

    I struggle with endings. Ugh! am I ever going to get one right? Maybe you should do a post on that because I could use the help!

  7. Nice post, Jenn. As an editor/reader I see a lot of what you are calling gimmicks and crutches. The truth is that they sort of work on the first read. It's the later readers when I start to feel tricked. That irks me.

    I've lost count of how many beginnings I've had on my novel. There's a lot of pressure, but now I just try and tell myself not to be boring. I'm hoping the other stuff will just fall into place.

  8. This was great advice because I know I am going to have to rewrite my beginning for the fourth time!

  9. Yup. I've been questioning my own first chapter lately. Mainly because I worry the car crash concept is overdone. We shall see said the blind girl.

  10. I have a prologue in a piece I am going to start looking at tomorrow.

    It's hard, because I needed the prologue in order to WRITE the piece....but the question is: Does the reader need the prologue in order to READ the piece.

    Decisions! (A part of me wants to keep the prologue just because we are told so often not to.....)

    Good post!


  11. Great post! My first chapter gets more revision than any of the others combined. I am a first chapter butcher I tell you!

  12. Seven different beginnings. That sounds as bad as my seven different types of chocolate stashed in different places of my house.

    In writing, I like beginnings. Maybe because I'm still there and haven't moved much past that to middles or ends yet. Someday...