Writing an opening to a short story or novel is one of the things that often stumps writers.
The beginning as a place mark
We sit in front of the keyboard, poised, with an idea for a book spinning in our head, and find ourselves afraid to start. After all, we are aware we have one paragraph, or three at best, to capture the attention of the reader. My friend and mentor, Elizabeth Searle, gave me a great tip to get past this initial fear: Think of your current opening as nothing more than a place mark. This keeps you from overworking the prose or overthinking when you’re itching to get into the thick of things. Just dive right into the story. Later, you can return to the beginning and get it right.
The emotional promise of a beginning
Nancy Kress, in Beginnings, Middles & Ends, says that every story promises something to the reader, emotionally and intellectually. The emotional promise is “read this and be entertained, thrilled, titillated and completely absorbed.” The intellectual promise varies from “read this and you’ll see the world in a new way,” to “read this and what you believed about the world will be validated.”
Writers may not know when they start their story what the promises are, but they should have a firm grasp on things by the time they’re knee deep in their story. Often the promises may change by the time “The End” is written. That’s why it’s helpful to initially think of your beginning as just a place mark.
I’ve changed the beginning of my novel countless ways, not only from tweaking an opening line, but also from different temporal zones (i.e. when the main character is a seventeen year-old, to when she is in her early twenties, to when she’s thirty)!
Revisit your beginning later
It’s worth spending considerable time polishing the beginning, but not right away. It’s far easier to recraft the beginning when you know your characters well enough to understand their desires and fears, and you know what the main conflict in the story is. You can then write an opening scene that defines character and withholds enough information to capture the reader’s interest, as well as give hints of what good stuff is yet to come.
Angelica Schirrick had always suspected there was something deeply disturbing about her family, but the truth was more than she bargained for.
“Linda K. Sienkiewicz’s powerful and richly detailed debut novel is at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River, and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters