For the last two years I’ve been teaching a writing workshop in a women’s prison. They’re a well-read group, but most of them don’t have much writing experience, and they consistently struggle with starting stories. They tend to get bogged down in detail or background information and just can’t get the damn thing off the ground. More seasoned writers seem to struggle with this, too. I’ve taken a lot of writing classes where I read a lot of stories that didn’t actually start until page three or four. In one workshop, the professor took our stories and drew a huge line across the page with a red felt pen when she got bored and stopped reading. In a different workshop, the professor put the first page of each story up on the screen and the class voted on whether or not they’d keep reading. If they voted “No,” you had to revise and resubmit until you got a “Yes.” Some people never made it past that first page.
Last time we talked about the struggles of getting started, one of my prison students blurted out what everyone else was probably wondering: “Why the hell is this so hard?”
The thing is, you rarely fantasize about the beginning of a story. When you’re kicking ideas around in your head and even once you’re working on a first draft, you’re preoccupied with those big cinematic moments that made you want to write the book in the first place. At least, that’s usually my experience. But beginnings, when done well, can become the most iconic moments in a story-telling franchise. Consider Harry Potter: few people are ever going to forget those owls landing on the Dursley house or the Hogwarts letters shooting out of the chimney. Consider The Hobbit: thirteen dwarves barnstorming the Shire is one for the ages. Consider Macbeth: the witches on the heath is one of the most recognizable scenes in Shakespeare, even though it may have actually been written by Middleton and it’s only a handful of lines. Point is, the impact of a good beginning can’t be underestimated.
I’ve been thinking about this question of beginnings a lot in the last two weeks as I’ve been writing the first chapter of a new project for 1000 words of summer. Starting a story is, like outlining, one of the challenges of writing fiction which I particularly enjoy. So when my students were wrestling with their stories’ first pages and paragraphs, I asked them the question I always ask myself when I first put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard: Why does this story start here? You can’t start a story right if you can’t answer that question. Why this day instead of any other day? What happens that’s out of the ordinary? What’s going to get the reader interested in finding out what happens next? Most good beginnings indicate an interruption of the norm, whether it’s dwarves banging down the door or something more mundane. But something has to happen to get your MC started on their journey, whether it’s a journey toward a spiritual awakening or a divorce or the end of the world.
What happens with a lot of my students (and a lot of people in writing workshops) is that they get hung up on world-building. They have such a clear vision of a place or a person that they want to fill the first pages of their story with rich description, so the reader has a perfectly immersive experience–like the opening sequence of a television show that plunges you right into the aesthetic of the thing. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite work with printed words; a little description is good, so your reader knows where they are in the world, but nothing will lose their interest faster than adjective soup. It’s much easier to get hooked on a story that starts with action, even a story that starts in media res–because people and particularly readers are naturally curious. They want to ask questions and learn the answers as they go, and they’ll keep reading until they get them, if the story has gotten them hooked.
A lot of writers forget that you can world-build as you go, instead of all at once. Starting with action doesn’t mean you’ve forfeited your only opportunity to describe the people and places that populate your story. No reader is ever going to picture everything exactly the same way the writer does, and I think the impulse to over-describe comes from an (understandable) desire to close that gap. However, good writing checks that impulse and instead seeks to close the gap between action and description, and gives the reader sensory and aesthetic detail as it becomes relevant to the events of the story–for instance, describing the way a character walks when he first walks into the room, or the way the front door groans when someone is trying to sneak back into the house after curfew without making a sound. This works in fiction because this is how it works in the real world; rarely do you walk into a new room and stop to digest every detail before you greet anybody or grab a drink or ask where to hang your coat. Instead, you absorb details of your surroundings as you move the through the world and as they grab your attention. Thus also to good writing: it takes notice of relevant detail, dispenses with the rest, and gets on with the story.
Of course, every beginning is different. But I do think it’s universally true that if you want a reader to keep turning pages, you have to convince them that things are going to happen in the many pages to come. In a world with more books than any one person could ever hope to read, you can’t afford to dither. Make a bold first move. These first pages are urgent. Shove your reader and your characters right out the door. They’ll follow where you lead. The story’s already started.