Great Beginnings

Awhile back, one of readers asked how to get started – how to get those first words on paper, moving the project from your head to the page. It’s tempting to say “just do it.” But beginnings are hard. Astounding, reader-grabbing beginnings are very hard. And so much depends on them in a world where agents, editors, and ordinary readers judge a book by its first few lines.

On happy occasions, a killer opening comes to the writer as the genesis of the book; then the middle or the ending usually play coy. But often the writer has to just dive into the story, starting somewhere, hoping and praying that along the way she’ll discover the perfect scenes and images to begin the book.

I try to make a habit of re-reading beginnings and endings of books I love. In my perfectly organized world, I’d keep a file of great beginnings. Several weeks ago, agent Nathan Bransford, whose blog (true confessions) is one of the few I take time to read daily, hosted an opening paragraph contest. Taste being subjective, every agent and editor would have his own take on the 1300 submissions. But I enjoyed reading Bransford’s remarks about the six finalists he chose. Some of what caught his eye:

— evidence of a catchy, high-concept plot
— very effective voice
— a keen sense of style
— describing and naming intriguing and unknown concepts in a way that allows the reader to deduce enough of the world to stay within the paragraph without worrying about understanding everything
— steadily building a memorable image
— details are that evocative and memorable; impeccable flow
— two pretty descriptions that contrast an essential fact, coupled with a certain casualness and distance on the part of the observing character
— steadily building a memorable character
— the combination of a big idea with small details

Obviously, none of this can be taken as any kind of formula for first paragraphs. Writing isn’t like opening a can of soup. Every project is different, and a reader’s delight lies in the unpredictable.

Here, in his words, are openings Bransford recommends writers avoid:

1) Surprising sentence. Well, not the surprising sentence per se, but rather the surprising sentence is made more complicated by the fact that it is followed, in fits and starts, by conversational prose that, in its casualness, contrasts with the shocking statement and sets a breezy tone despite the shocking statement. That is, until the reversal.

2) Small, finely rendered observation. This is followed by the particular shape of the moon or the wisps of grass and the particular temperature that still night or perfect sunset that lulls us into a sense of place and setting. And then we linger in that scene still longer to see one more even more finely rendered detail, and still another, leading us to the very thing the author seeks. That is, until the shocking statement.

3) The tough protagonist shudders against whatever bad weather they are enduring. They check their timepiece, or weapon, and go back to the task at hand. Pithy comment. It’s not easy being the tough protagonist.

“Anything can be done properly,” Bransford notes. “Even a conventional setup. But unless it’s deliberate or subverted in some way, it can come off as cliched.”

2 thoughts on “Great Beginnings”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I enjoyed that list, Deb. Always good to have things summarized so we can mull them over. To pick just a few items: I’m more and more aware of the importance of voice, and of feeling like I am in a confident writer’s capabale hands — that there is an intelligence already developed, a plan that will unfold purposefully. The pace may be fast, or it may slow — what’s more important to me is that the pace’s variations fit the story and the story fits the voice (or vice-versa) and the whole thing has a satisfying shape, with both big ideas and really concretely described small details as well.(One thing perfectly described earns my appreciation and belief for several pages.)

    Well, THAT isn’t asking too much, is it? Sheesh.

  2. Somerset Wedding Girl

    This is really interesting, I certainly feel that I've learnt a lot about writing from this!

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