Yesterday, I started a new book. I had the perfect opening line, I knew where the scene occurred, and what was going to happen. But less than 200 words into it, something felt off. It took me a while to figure it out, but I’d started in the wrong place and the wrong POV. Even when I’d been thinking of it for days and was certain this was right, it wasn’t.
Beginnings are tricky creatures. You have to establish so much in the first few lines. You have to establish that there’s a problem and a sympathetic character. Sympathetic in that the reader wants to know more about this character and how he or she will handle the problem, not sympathetic in the respect that it’s the world against the character (though that can certainly work too!).
In the short category format, you don’t have a lot of room for build up. You have to establish the problem pretty early (like immediately) and get those characters moving toward the resolution. It’s challenging, and so incredibly important to get right. Personally, I like to jump into the action with dialogue and the characters face to face — and yet in my published books, about half of them do that and half don’t. Not because I didn’t try, but because the story just didn’t work that way. It doesn’t always have to start with dialogue, or with the characters in the same room.
But it does need to start with a dilemma. In my first book, SPANISH MAGNATE, RED-HOT REVENGE (Aug 2009), the heroine has just gotten off the phone with someone who informed her that her company has been taken over. A few lines later, her phone rings again and it’s the hero. Naturally, he’s the one who bought her company — and they have a past together. By contrast, in THE DEVIL’S HEART (April 2011), the hero is being held at gunpoint by the heroine (not that he knows it’s her) who was once married to him. In BEHIND THE PALACE WALLS (July 2011), Alexei hears a scream. A few minutes later, the heroine barrels into him as she’s running across the dark, snowy cobbles of Red Square. In STRANGERS IN THE DESERT (March 2012), the hero learns that a woman resembling his dead wife, whose body was never found, is living halfway around the world and singing in bars.
See, instant trouble, whether or not it starts with dialogue or both characters together in the same space. No one is getting out of bed in the morning, getting into the shower, thinking about their day, making breakfast, driving to the office, etc. If your character needs to get out of bed to start the story, then maybe the other character needs to crash through their roof and land on the bed seconds later. (That’s a joke.) 😉
Believe it or not, you have plenty of time to get the whys and wherefores into the story if you launch with immediate problems. You simply feed it in as necessary to establish what’s going on. Think of it like this: if you were walking along in the mall and saw a fight break out in the food court, would you need to know why the fight was happening or would you be instantly intrigued? You, and a bunch of other people, would probably stop and watch while mall security raced to the scene to stop the fight. You’d listen to the participants yell at each other, watch the struggles as they tried to break free of security, and wonder what was going on.
You wouldn’t need to know up front that these were former best friends who’d become enemies because one of them stole the other’s husband, and that the husband and the thief were now getting married, and that the ex-wife has two children at home that belong to the husband. You wouldn’t need to know the fight started because the thief taunted the ex-wife as she was walking by, or that the ex-wife is struggling to make ends meet and this was the last straw for her tonight.
You’d only need to see two women in each others’ faces, shouting and coming to blows, to be intrigued.
Remember that. Start with a problem that hooks the reader in and then give them just enough information to keep them hooked. Don’t show all your cards at the beginning, but don’t hide everything either.
I’d started with the wrong character but I didn’t know it until I wrote 200 words. It was fine, but not dramatic enough. So I moved the scene to a new location and put it into the hero’s POV. This is a man who is supposed to be on top of the world, who has everything going for him, but who feels dead inside while everyone around him thinks he has the perfect life. He doesn’t, and I needed the reader to know that before I could go on. The heroine is on the scene now, and everything is about to slide sideways. I love that moment, when the characters meet and nothing goes as they expect. It’s so delicious it gives me a thrill to imagine what I’m going to do to these people today!
1. Beginnings should be compelling enough to hook the reader in, but you don’t have to hit them over the head with a fight or someone crashing through a roof. Problems, problems, problems – that’s the key.
2. A sympathetic character isn’t necessarily a character for whom everything is going wrong or who is downtrodden. No, a sympathetic character is also one for whom everything seemed fine (or nearly fine) until recently. Downtrodden works too, of course. The heroine who is homeless and has a baby to feed probably didn’t get that way overnight (though it’d be interesting if she did!). You won’t want to detail every step that got her here, but you’ll want to hammer it home pretty quickly that she’s in a bad spot. Likewise, a heroine who is on top of the world until she gets a phone call that her company has been bought out from under her is also sympathetic because we’ve just watched everything change in the space of a heartbeat. Change is the motor that drives the beginning.
3. Don’t be afraid to shift the beginning if it’s not working. Sometimes the perfect line is perfect — but not the right place to begin. The line I had for this story will remain, but it will be the first line of the scene in which I shift to the heroine’s POV. Still there, but moved. Never be afraid to shift, or to start over completely if it’s not working.
4. Trust your gut. If you find yourself piling on words in an effort to explain that perfect beginning, then maybe you need to listen hard and realize that it’s not perfect and that you need something that doesn’t require so much explaining. You need the metaphorical equivalent of that mall fight, something that intrigues and causes rubber-necking and the need to know what’s happening.
5. Don’t think up something huge and dramatic just to hook the reader and then the rest of the story isn’t like that. The beginning needs to fit. Don’t put in a car chase or a skydiving mishap and then the rest of the story has nothing to do with either of those things. Sometimes, the most dramatic opening isn’t correct. In CAPTIVE BUT FORBIDDEN, out now in the UK, I originally started with the heroine at her father’s funeral and the hero coming to kidnap her because of a threat against her (he’s been hired to protect her). It was dramatic, but wrong for the characters. Now, the story starts with the heroine hiding from the public and her responsibilities, just for a few moments, but the hero intrudes on her private time. Before she can get rid of him, she’s forced to rely on his expertise when the lights go out. A much more fitting opening to who they are and their situation.
And that’s it for the moment! My wisdom, such as it is, on beginnings. Questions?