Beginnings

Beginnings are always difficult for me, as they may well be for many other writers. I don’t mean just the hook, the first few words which make someone want to read on for at least a page or two. For example, “He went out onto the balcony, and knew, by the way she was leaning on the rail, what she was going to do. He climbed up on it when she did.”

I used something like that in a story called called “Dorian’s Choice.”

What I mean is that the beginning of a story, of a chapter, even of just a scene has to establish a setting, some characters, a situation, in a way that informs readers, as well as making them want to read more.

Sometimes it’s not so hard, if the setting is familiar. How about a tree-lined residential street. That’s enough that most people can almost see it. The situation might be instantly understandable, for example, “Geoff went out onto the porch, waited for Marian to get her coat, then they went down to the sidewalk.” There’s a hint of something leading to this. We can find out more about who Geoff and Marian are and what they look like in later paragraphs and pages. But there should be something to make readers ask questions, something like: “The car screeched around the corner, jumped the curb, and crashed into the tree at the end of their front walk, just three feet from them.”

There are plenty of questions here to draw readers in, and they will get answers, and find more questions, the more they read. And maybe they’ll discover that this was just a precursor to a larger story, as in Star Wars part 4.

But how about this: “The portal opened to what looked like, but might not actually be, some kind of a ruin. It was partially over-grown with shrubs and grasses of strange colors, but they could have been planted there. And there were crawlers and jumpers everywhere, some of them as big as a hand. Janae and Lef-Korak, his Chenatsch partner, went through the portal which closed behind them. Had they come too late?”

But what can readers see, or hear, or smell? What is a ‘crawler’? And how long would it take to describe all that without losing the reader’s interest? Does any of it mean anything?

That’s where I sometimes spend hours, or even days, working on a beginning that will let readers visualize and understand what I’m telling them, without it being a data dump or a textbook description, and do it clearly enough to arouse their curiosity and make them want to read more. Of course, some readers would have put it down at the first sentence — they thought Ill met by Moonlight was going to be a romance.

Take my two examples, and see for which one it is easier to write the next paragraph. The second one is more like the stories I choose to tell.

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