Beginnings and endings are my favorite parts of books to write. Not just because with one I am starting a new exciting journey and the other I’m finally crossing the finish line. Endings we’ll talk about another time, but beginnings…
Beginnings I love because I get to use a relatively small amount of real estate to get readers invested while setting up the entire rest of the story. I’m not talking about the first page, but the first roughly 10%. Sounds like a lot, but it’s not. Which is what makes it so exciting as a writer. It’s a challenge I love to dig into.
So… what goes into writing a great beginning?
That is a HUGE question. And we could spend days/hours/many, many blogs on things like GMC (goal, motivation, conflict), building/establishing/developing characters, setting up your plot, and so forth. All fantastic tools to use as a writer, but for this blog, I’m going to assume you’ve practiced all of that (or at least know what it is).
For me, once I’d learned/read/taken workshops/watched videos, it helped to have a “cheat sheet” of reminders pulling from those teachings and putting them together with my own personal preferences and experience.
Here’s my cheat sheet for great beginnings:
Wait… first I have to share this…
The PIXAR Example
The best help I’ve ever had with beginnings I came across just this year. It’s a short video from Michael Arndt on his website, Pandemonium Inc. Michael is a writer at PIXAR who examines great beginnings in this video. Watch and thank me (and Michael) later…
Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion from Pandemonium
Okay, now that I’ve shared that, HERE is my cheat sheet great beginnings:
1. Start with Action
I critiqued a beginning written by my friend Mia Darien once, and it has stuck with me for years. Why? Because she immediately kicked the beginning off with a scene full of action, but, layered in that action, we met interesting characters, got a bit of background, and set up quite a bit of conflict.
We didn’t need to meet the characters first and learn their entire history to understand why this scene was important to them. She made it obvious within the scene. But that action was so gripping, I can still close my eyes and picture it. I still want to know what happens next.
In other words… JUMP IN to your main character(s) life. Don’t bore the reader setting up every detail of that life first with a ton of internal thought, exposition, or you (the writer) telling the reader who this is.
This was the first ah-ha for me from that PIXAR video. Show what your main character (or characters) lives are like/worlds are like now. However, this isn’t just things like they eat breakfast, get dressed, and go to work (unless this is The Matrix and that info is critical to the story). Show them in their world doing what they love most / what they are about to lose / what’s about to change.
BTW… by doing this you’re also getting in setting, introducing your character(s), and even a bit of backstory. Add to the action, and readers will be hooked.
3. Fatal Flaw
Show your character(s)’s fatal flaw. Only this isn’t that they swear too much or don’t wash their hands. This is something that is going to impact them in a major way and eventually bring about their troubles/conflict/downfall. Is your hero arrogant or brutally honest? Does your heroine struggle with speaking her mind too much, maybe not at all? Want a list of possibilities?
Even better, tie the flaw to what they love most, what they are passionate about, or what they want.
For example, in The American President, the flaws are pride & popularity – Sydney is good at what she does and loves it, takes pride in it. Meanwhile, the President has a high approval rating which he needs to get his job done.
4. Limited / Purposeful Backstory – The “Salt” of the Story
On Writers Helping Writers, James Scott Bell shares a terrific article on incorporating backstory (and agrees with my immediate action thing, too). James and I both agree that backstory should only be shared if it’s important to the scene/story. Also, think of backstory like salt. Sprinkle it a little here and there. Don’t overwhelm the food with it.
I love James’s suggestion to go back through your beginning and highlight all the backstory. It will help you see when you’ve put in too much in one section. My advice is to limit backstory mentions to 1-2 sentences at a time. I’m not always successful, but keeping that in mind helps.
5. Save the Cat
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a book recommended to most writers, and I’ve found it very helpful to help me tighten my plot. There a ton of plot points to consider, but for my cheat sheet on beginnings, I always try to remember to save the cat.
This is especially true if one of my main characters is a tough one (love me those antiheroes and snarky heroines). By having them do one small act of kindness (doesn’t having to be literally saving a cat), I immediately make them human/likable/relatable in the reader’s eyes.
6. The Meet Cute
I write romance, so this is important to me. The meet-cute is that moment when the hero and heroine meet. It is critical to the romance and (usually) happens pretty quickly. Longer books (like historicals) might stretch it out. Personally, I love it when the meet cute happens fast.
I have a list of things I try to incorporate into the meet-cute.
- Fitting for the book/characters.
- Unusual or unique in some way.
- Snappy. I want it to move quickly.
- I want witty banter that sets up the H/H interaction for the rest of the book.
- And I especially love it when the meet cute can also be incorporated into other aspects of the beginning–like it’s also the inciting incident (#7) or the insult to injury (#8).
7. Inciting Incident
This is one of those basics, but your entire story hinges on you getting it right. By the way, the inciting incident , just by rule of thumb, should hit about 10% into your book. This means you’ve set up quite a bit before you yank the rug out.
Your beginning doesn’t end until the conflict for your character has been “incited” (challenge accepted). Which means you need to know the conflict so you can set it up. What is going to kick that off? This is an event that is going to send your protagonist(s) down a new path into the main action of the story.
Without an inciting incident, we’re just watching a character keep doing what they always do. One of the best examples… Katniss volunteers as tribute in The Hunger Games.
8. Tie #6 to the Grand Passion
Remember the video. If you can tie the inciting incident to the character’s grand passion (what they love or want most in this life–that you established in the equilibrium), it makes the turn of events that much more gripping for the reader. This was a huge “ah-ha” for me (thanks Michael!).
You take that passion/love/interest/need already established and then you twist it, flip it, throw a fly in the ointment, or take it away altogether.
Back to my Hunger Games example. Prim is who Katniss loves most. Only her name being selected could make Katniss step up that way.
9. Add Insult to Injury
This was a fun ah-ha from Michael’s video for me. What is your inciting incident and what would make it worse for your character? Rub salt in that wound. In the video, Michael’s example is that not only is Mr. Incredible no longer allowed to be a hero (because he saved someone being a hero), but now he works in insurance. That just…sucks for him.
I have to say I have a great time coming up with ways to add insult to injury. Torturing characters is really fun.
10. Less Is More
This is the hard part. With each and every element above as well as other elements like dialogue, descriptions, internal thoughts, showing the GMC (goal, motivation, conflict), you don’t need to write a dissertation for each piece. Think of it as a playing a piano. If you hit the same note over and over, listeners will tune you out pretty quickly. The goal is to play lots of different notes in a way that makes music. Same with your words, especially at the beginning when you have to establish so much.
Like James’s suggestion with backstory, read through your beginning multiple times. Each time focus on one element to tighten/trim/perfect/whittle as needed.
So when I start a new book. On top of established my GMC, plot points, and various other character development notes, I also list out the following for my beginnings:
- Beginning Action
- Equilibrium for Hero
- Fatal Flaw
- Save the Cat
- Equilibrium for Heroine:
- Fatal Flaw
- Save the Cat
- Meet/Cute and Inciting Incident
- Tie to Love/Need/Want
- Tie to Fatal Flaw
- Insult to Injury
- Remember to…
- Limit Backstory
- Read several times to see if any one element is in there too much or too little
I highly recommend to writers that you spend time look at books like Save the Cat and and taking workshops on GMC and other techniques. Writing a book takes many tools in an author’s kit. It’s also incredibly personal. This cheat sheet is what works for me. Put together your own of things that work for you. (Feel free to borrow!)