Beginnings are hard

We all have to start somewhere, though, right? In a book or a short story, those first lines are so important. We don’t have much time to capture our readers’ attention, the very first thing a beginning must do.

But that’s not all they have to do. Beginnings must establish the story world. By the end of a first page, the reader should know where we are and when we are. Beginnings establish tone and pace. Think about the beginning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the most famous and well-beloved first lines in western literature:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

 We know immediately that this is going to be a novel about social conventions and that it will be at least a little tongue in cheek. We know that the pace will be measured. We know that it probably takes place some time in the past although one assumes not so for Jane’s first readers. In fact, the whole plot of the novel is summed up in that line. It’s a hard working sentence and is admired by many people (Mark Twain notwithstanding) just for that reason.

A suspenseful beginning is terrific. Starting in media res is a terrific strategy. Just make sure that the suspense is real suspense. Are you starting in the middle of the action, or are you using a gimmick to create suspense? Or even being deliberately obtuse? If the suspense is real, the reader will be asking herself, “what happens next?” If it’s not, the reader might well be asking herself, “wtf?”

How exactly to do that? The story start needs to be grounded in specific experiences. Even if -- actually especially if -- your story happens in a strange land far far away, use details to make sure the reader gets a sense of the world as a solid and real place. Use all five senses if you can. Think about the setting, the light, the clothes people are wearing, the weather. Use every tool you have to bring that world alive in your reader’s mind. If you do, they’ll totally accept that the sky is puce and the grass is vermillion.

One of the jobs of the first part of a novel or story is to establish the protagonist’s ordinary world. That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to know exactly what time the alarm clock went off and what she had for breakfast.  Don’t dramatize routine. Think about what parts of that ordinary world that are most unstable, most likely to change, most likely to cause conflict.

These days, beginnings should also give us a sense of the protagonist. Who is he or she? What age? Build a picture in the reader’s mind, although please do not do so by having the protagonist look in the mirror and describe herself.

What about prologues, you may ask. They are somewhat controversial. I’ve gone back and forth on them like a swing with one short chain myself. Here’s my advice to writers looking to get their first novels published: make sure you need that prologue before you start with it. Whether they really are good or bad, a lot of editors see a prologue as a red flag. Can the information in the prologue be woven in as backstory later? Can the mood you’re trying to establish be established in the first lines of the book? If the answer to either of those is yes, don’t use the prologue.

Eileen Carr was born in Dayton, Ohio. She moved when she was four and only remembers that she was born across the street from Baskin-Robbins. Eileen remembers anything that has to do with ice cream. Or chocolate. Or champagne.

Eileen’s alter ego, Eileen Rendahl, is the award-winning author of four Chick Lit novels and the Messenger series.


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