Beginnings are difficult for a few reasons. The main reason is that writers tend to get self-conscious with all the hubbub about “hooking” the reader. While this is true, and good advice, it’s important not to get too worked up about it.
That being said, your beginning is important, imperative, even. So determining the right beginning for your work will be big.
So here’s some hints and whatnot that might be of service.
Don’t fuss the beginning too much on the first draft.
Yes, yes, the beginning is the jumping off point for the whole damn story, but hear me out.
This can become a problem when writers write the beginning fuss over it for a long time, and then never get to writing the actual story.
The first draft is you telling yourself the story. So write the draft and then go back and determine what needs to be changed. It’s a lot clearer to see where the story begins if you have the thing fleshed out.
This is a point of debate in literature in general.
Here’s my opinion on prologues (you can take it or leave it at your pleasure):
- Only use a prologue to talk about something that the first chapter cannot.
- The prologue is not there for world building. It should be used for foreshadowing, tone/themes, or to set up events later in the story.
That’s a bit vague, but hopefully the points stand. The problem with prologues is that too often they’re used to do some info-dumping/world building/exposition stuff that isn’t really relevant or needed then.
So don’t use a prologue to tell me about some war that happened in your world 200+ years before the action takes place. Don’t use it to tell me how the gods of your world created it 10,000+ years ago. If it’s too disconnected from the main plot, don’t use it.
Now, I know you as the author might think all that world building you did to set up the main story in your own head needs to be there and maybe it does, there’s definitely truth to that, but a prologue (or even chapter 1) isn’t the place.
You can sprinkle in world building where it’s important, where it’s relevant. Remember when your reader first opens your book, they don’t care about the world. They aren’t emotionally invested in anything yet. I’ll cover this in another point.
George R.R. Martin uses prologues in A Song of Ice and Fire some times. At the beginning of A Game of Thrones (the first book in the series) we’re introduced to the big bad of the story (the mystical ice demon things), one of the factions (The Night’s Watch), important locations and another important group. The prologue is probably there because it is a big flashing neon sign for the reader: THIS IS IMPORTANT. KEEP THIS IN YOUR MIND AS THE STORY GOES ON.
Some people love that prologue, some hate it. The main reason people don’t like it (I’ve seen) is that Martin doesn’t reintroduce the big bad for a very long time. But, to me, it does fit in with the “Winter is Coming” theme.
He does it again with the second book A Clash of Kings. Stannis Baratheon and the Red Priestess, Melisandre, are important characters for the duration of the books, but they’re introduced via another character. We learn a lot about these other characters through this guy: Stannis as a person, how he came to know and join with Melisandre, some history, and so on. The prologue has conflict, information, and other things that are important for the whole of the plot.
So only use prologues if you really need them. They can be really powerful tools, but their overuse is lazy.
No info-dumping, exposition, or gratuitous world building.
In fantasy, world building is incredibly important. It helps to set the stage for this whole thing. Problem is that on Page 1, readers don’t care.
It’s not that they don’t want to like your story, they just aren’t emotionally invested in it yet.
Information about the world, exposition, and so on do have a place, but it’s not 10 paragraphs in the first chapter. World building should be sprinkled in throughout the work where it’s relevant to the plot and after the readers care.
As a personal example, I had a huge problem with this a couple years ago. I was writing the story but there was no conflict, the big event that kickstarted the story didn’t happen until a few chapters in. It was because I thought I needed all that other stuff to tell the story. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I didn’t and it wasn’t helpful. There were a lot better, subtle, nuanced ways I could include all that information.
I learned this from a writing professor and I think it’s solid advice.
Most stories, save for some exceptions (maybe), are only snippets of characters’ lives. We don’t usually follow a character from birth to death and get their whole life story. We only get a chunk of it, the chunk where stuff happens.
So when starting your story you need to ask yourself: “Why does this story start today? What’s different about today? What is so special about this day in the character’s life that I’m starting the story there?”
The beginning should not be just “a day in the life” of your character. That’s boring and doesn’t push the story forward. Something should be different, something should change in comparison to other days.
Start with a conflict.
It doesn’t have to be the huge, overarching conflict, but it can be. It can be a smaller conflict that is a domino falling (in regards to the big conflict). Conflict and how the characters act/react about it tells the reader information about the characters. It sets up intrigue and it can give world information.
Harry Potter does nothing in his first chapter because he is a baby. Through the talking and a bit of arguing amongst other important characters (Hagrid, Dumbledore, and so on) we learn important history (Voldemort, magic, Harry’s parents, etc.) so that when the next chapter starts 10 years later, we know that Harry is special, the conflict, we know that information is going to be important.
The conflict is what drives the plot. It’s what brings the readers in and makes them want to know what’s going to happen next. So start strong and start with the conflict.
Keep your beginning hooked on action. Something should be happening.
Your readers will believe the first person on stage.
This is other advice I got from a professor and it’s not bulletproof, but I think it’s interesting to keep in mind, especially if you have multiple POVs.
The first person the reader is exposed to is the person they’re going to believe and trust, so choose your POV wisely. Why this character? Why does this character start the story?
Remember the reader knows nothing about your characters or world when reading Page 1, so they have to put their faith in something/someone and the POV character is the one they’re going to put that faith in.
You can bend and play with this as much as you want. Maybe you actually introduce the villain first and maybe the reader doesn’t know it (at least at first). Maybe this character doesn’t seem important or is an observer but ultimately becomes important. Maybe they are important for now but aren’t the main character.
You need to really consider who you start your story with and why. Remember the same “rules” apply: conflict, why today, and so on.
Beginnings are tools.
Just as I said with prologues and POVs, remember that your beginning as a whole is a tool. It introduces the world, the conflict, the characters, etc. So as you go forward, you need to decide what best suits your story and your work.
What tone are you trying to set? What conflict are you introducing? Who are the readers following? Why?
Answer those and other questions for yourself (as they come up) and you’ll find your beginning.
The first line.
A lot of writers stress so much over making their first line “good” and it’s usually not as big of a deal as they’re making it.
Use the words you need to use. Don’t overcomplicate or it’ll look pretentious or like it’s trying too hard. Don’t make it heightened or poetic if your story (or POV character) isn’t all written like that.
My point is, don’t fret over this. Use the words that you need to use.
Overused or ineffective beginnings.
Again, these aren’t hard or fast rules and full disclosure that all these beginnings can work really well. The key is to know when to use them and not just use them because you think they’re cool, or a “hook”, or shocking, or whatever.
As I said, with any beginning, you need determine why you’re doing it that way.
- Dream/nightmare sequences. These are often used to be “different”, create intrigue, or trick the reader into something, pumping up the action, and then dissipating it instantly. The problem is, it’s cheap. It’s a trick, a falsehood. It can risk “blue balling” your readers. You have this crazy event just to have it be fake. A dream at the beginning can have symbolism and such, but that means nothing to the reader on the first page. The reader wants to know the character and what’s going on in the world. They aren’t going to understand the symbolism of the dream. It can come up as a cheap “gotcha!” moment and why get the reader invested and curious in events that aren’t really happening?
- Weather. Starting with “It was a bright, sunny day in FantasyLand” is boring because weather usually has little bearing on the story. Unless the weather is especially out of the ordinary or important to story, then don’t start with weather.
- Waking up. Starting with “Protagonist McGee woke up in her bed on the morning of blah blah blah” is often ineffective because it tells me nothing except that the character is starting their day. You can do this if they wake up to something weird or different like waking up in a pigsty after a night of heavy drinking and regret, but again make sure it tells me why this day is different. Otherwise it feels too “day in the life.”
- Landscapes. The influence of TV and movies doesn’t help here. The reader isn’t going to get attached to landscapes unless they are especially interesting (like everything is upside down or floating, or there’s a natural disaster.) The reader will get attached to action. Don’t use cinematic stuff like this at your beginning.
- Shocking events. Sequences of torture, murder, rape, etc. can be effective in beginnings but often times the reader doesn’t have as much empathy for what’s happening yet. You can introduce your villain this way, but it sometimes feels cartoonish or trying too hard. Why not wait until the reader has more empathy/sympathy for the world and characters to do this?
- Character descriptions. Again, the reader doesn’t care (yet) what your characters look like and knowing what they look like isn’t going to help them get to know the character. It also usually isn’t helpful to start with a character’s backstory because, again, if it’s not happening in the present, the reader isn’t going to hook onto it.
Again, there are exceptions to all of these. All of these can be done really well and have been.
Beginnings are super important. Just make sure you’re asking yourself the right questions, choosing them for the right reasons, and make them as effective as possible. You’re bound to come up with something incredible.