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Monday, April 1, 2013

Beginnings: What NOT To Do

I'm so frustrated I could rip the virtual paper in my computer screen.

Beginnings always hurt me. I think I'm chronologically handicapped, or something, because when I dream, I start in the middle, finish to the end, and then--I kid you not--cycle back to the beginning. I read books that way, too. Beginnings bore me. I skip them. Start in the middle.

Well, that's made beginnings really, REALLY hard to write.

Here's what I've learned--via trial, error, and agent-advice-trawling--NOT to do:

1. Start with an unrelated, high-action bang.

Yes, the agents and editors always tell us to start with something gripping. What they DON'T mean is start with a high action sequence where no one knows the characters or the stakes. Starting with a central conflict isn't the same thing as starting with random bombs and screaming matches. It's explosions! There's death! It's scary! But without a motivation or a character to care about, that's all it is. Special effects and fancy one-liners. Like a Michael Bay movie or something.*

2. Start with a huge internal monologue.

This one should be obvious, but those of us who tend to write literary also tend to get WAAAAY wrapped up in philosophy and thinkings and musings until everyone else really just wants us to shut up. You know what I'm talking about--beginnings like,

"Love is a kind of bomb. It's a time-bomb, I think, but then again it could be a flower. My mom always says it's more like a computer screen. I can't get the bomb image out of my mind, though, and don't explosions look like flowers? That's why we need more marriage rights for puppies--more exploding flowers for everyone."

I'm joking. I wrote that crap. But I'm also serious. I've been on critique forums and in critique contests with beginnings like this going on for 500 words all over the place. Stop it! We're story-tellers. People who read novels want the story to make the point for us. They want us to tell stories, not preach sermons.

BUT big internal monologues have their place, and I miss them. One of my favs comes in C.S. Lewis' Perelandra, where the M.C.'s trying desperately to figure out whether or not to attack a demon-thing (thereby risking his tendons, I kid you not). 

Lewis also starts the beginning with a monologue. That monologue almost tanks, though, because it's long, not even from the POV character, and wordy. I don't know if it would have worked in today's fast-paced "grip-em-now" publishing world--except for the fact that there's a conflict, a danger, expressed from the first paragraph. The POV character has to accomplish a fairly simple task--go to the protag's house--but there's something shady going on about the whole affair, and POV guy's mind starts playing games with him. The monologue ONLY works because it comes with a central conflict and begins to characterize the protag via POV-character's observations.

That is HARD TO DO RIGHT. Lewis had the advantage of tons of publications behind him and years of teaching creative writing and literary philosophy at Oxford, for Pete's sake. I know I shouldn't start with an internal monologue unless I've got reason to believe I've got 1) voice, 2) conflict, and 3) protag characterization going for me and my endless streams of philosphy. Even then, can you name one best-seller published recently that began with a three-page internal monologue? I can't...

3. Prologues.

Gah, I dunno on this one. The trend I'm hearing right now is "just start the story already," mostly because some folks--especially in high fantasy or space opera--will go all-out with a five page description of the great Space Elf Wars of long ago before starting the story proper. That's not good. We can't care about the Space Elves until you give us a story to rally around, a hero to feel, and a voice to follow. Once you've written the fabulous novel, put the Space Elf Wars history in the appendix. Your hard-core fans--and only your hard-core fans--will read it there. Cut it out with the back-story prologue.

But then there's the king of prologues, Frank Peretti. This horror writer starts at least half his stories with a prologue about some random folks dying in some scary way. Peretti's an NY-Times best-selling novelist with more than 15 million books in print--so he's doing something right.

Why do Peretti's prologues work? Because he establishes the elements of the story, even though we haven't even met the protag yet. Conflict? Check. I know Nightmare Academy is gonna be about kids going insane. I know The Oath is gonna cover some cult-people killing people. And I'm already scared out of my bra-straps. Best of all, by the time the protag faces BIG SCARY WHATEVER, I'm already more terrified for poor dear protag than protag is. Protag wasn't there at the beginning. I was! Protag can't see how Peretti's using parallel structure to mimick what happened before. Protag can't see SHE'S GONNA DIE or HE'S GONNA GO INSANE or I'M GONNA CRY ABOUT THIS. Peretti's prologues usually also hint at the major theme of the book. Yay!

So those are three ways I know I shouldn't start a story, or at least, not without deep self-reflection and so forth. Maybe these things help you.

I am, however, still at a loss as to how one SHOULD start a story. There's this delicate balance between giving enough information that people know what's going on, and not writing an info-mercial. There's this desire to create tension, and then this desire to foster relationships. There's this desire to make war, and this desire to weave love.  GAH!!!! 

How do you start a story--and how do you do it well?

*Disclaimer: I am joking. I am also not qualified to criticize films I have not seen.


  1. I can't believe you don't read beginnings! I'd be sacred of missing half the story.

    But I agree beginnings are darn hard to write. I recently played around with one of mine. Cut almost three pages and now start closes to inciting incident.

    No prologue, no internal monologue, no high action. Maybe that means we should start with dialogue. But who really knows!

    Good luck with your beginning.

    1. Yeah I know, with all that "no" stuff it's like WHAT DO I ACTUALLY DO!!!