Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Beginnings: Hard or Easy?

For all of you fiction writers out there, I'd love to hear your opinion on this one. Do you consider writing the beginning easy or hard? Why?

I find them HARD. I know where the book should start and can see the scene in my head, but it's painful to find the perfect words to show it. I can't tell you how many times I revise it to get just the right wording. Also, my first draft often morphs into a deeper story or the characters surprise me and reveal themselves in a different way by the end. This means I need to match their motivations and personalities from the beginning with the end result.

So what should a good beginning do? The short answer?

Make the reader want to keep reading!

Simple, right?

Not so much.

I didn't put as much thought into the opening pages when I started writing, but I spend skads of time on them now. Here's a short list of things I consider.

- Does the opening match the tone of the genre book I'm writing? A suspense should convey a sense of urgency. A contemporary novel should match the tone I'm setting, whether it's light, funny, dark, heavy, or breezy. A historical novel should reflect the time period to immediately clue the reader as to where and when it takes place. A fantasy should alert the reader to the nuances of the book's world.

- Is there enough non-character information to ground the reader without boring the reader? Pertinent questions should be answered right away, including a hint or more of where the book takes place, the time period, the season, and so forth.

- Is the main character's primary external goal clearly stated? For example: Maybe the main character wants to open a coffee shop and, in pursuing this dream, meets her future husband along the way. The character's desire to open a coffee shop is the primary external goal and needs to be clear in the opening pages.

- Who is the main character and why should the reader care?

The last question proves the most important for me. I write romances, and readers need to connect with the main character to want to keep reading. Hint at the conflict--why the external goal might not come easily.

In addition to the external goal, give one big emotional reason the goal will be difficult to achieve, something inside her that's holding her back. Maybe her father told her women don't run businesses, or she helped run a coffee shop with her ex-fiance only to be left penniless when he swindled her out of her share. It's your book; go with it!

The main characters should brim with characteristics that will help the reader like them. Maybe it's as subtle as being friendly to a stranger, generous to a grandmother, petting a dog, or smiling at a small child.

I've been guilty of creating characters who are very hard to like in the beginning. Sure, these characters grow and become upstanding citizens, but readers will be turned off by someone they don't like. If the reader is turned off, they probably won't continue to read.

What do you think? Beginnings--easy or hard?

Join me on Wednesday when we'll discuss opening lines.


  1. I think it's all hard! Beginnings, middles, ends! It just depends on what I'm working on at the moment. AFter I write the beginning, I think, "Oh that wasn't that hard. But this middle. Now this is hard." And then I finish the middle and find myself saying the same thing about the end! Thankfully, I enjoy the challenge. :)

  2. I'm with Katie. It's all hard! But the endings are by far the hardest part for me. I rush them big time.

  3. LOL. It took me four years to master beginnings. I think I got it down now, BUT it still doesn't get much easier! Now that I know its key attirbutes and how to go about showing them, I strive for perfection. Frustrating to say the least.

  4. I find beginnings hard. I always think about the tv show Friends. Loved that show, but now when I go back and watch the first episodes you can see that they had to explain all the jokes & the writing had to be really good in order to make it work. Towards the end of the show the jokes could happen with a word or an action.... someone could track muddy footprints across Monica's floor & you would know why she was cringing. It starts to get easier once you've laid down how the characters will react & relate to each other.

  5. I think the middle is the hardest. I have to be a plotter, because I always have a beginning and an end, but I have to figure out exactly how I got there.

  6. Yes, I find beginnings the trickier than the middle. And sometimes I have my last line written first. Thank you for this Jill. I'm going to post these points where I can always see them.

  7. Here's how I'll answer this one: Writing the beginning...easy, editing it...hard. ;)

    Middles are hardest for me.

    I pretty much feel on a high writing the entire first draft. It's editing when I sober up.
    ~ Wendy

  8. Good post. It depends on what I am writing, some are easy to start, and some are difficult and I procrastinate more:)

    Have a surprise for you over at my blog today.
    Have a wonderful week.

  9. I think it's soooooooooooo hard! I've rewritten the beginning of my current project like ten times, and I'm still not happy with it.

  10. I'm with Wendy. WRITING the first three chapters is SO easy for me. However, when I go back to revise...that is the painful part.

    The hardest part of writing, for me, is the ends. I procrastinate for as long as I can, and then rush for the finish line. :)

  11. I'm also going to agree with Wendy. Editing them is tough. The worst part is cutting your beginning and starting a brand new beginning.

  12. Yes, the beginnings are hard for me too. I often have to go back and totally rewrite my opening scene once I'm done with the book. I try not to stress out about it too much the first time around because I know I'll have to rewrite it. I do try to find an opening action scene that will immediately draw the reader in, but like I said not sweat it too much because as the story evolves, my first chapter takes on a new dimension.

    On a side note, I'm reading Genesis entries which are all first chapters, and I'm surprised by some of the openings and the lack of attention the writers gave.

  13. I don't have a lot of experience with different stories but I usually have an idea for the beginning (opening scene) and the I think the middle section is hardest for me. In fact, I had to do the most work revising/editing my middle chapters of my current WIP because I didn't maintain the tension (it's a suspense story) that kick started the story.

    I think your "checklist" of what to accomplish in the opening scene is very good--some sense of place, time, season, external goal, etc. But I also think some of those aspects can be addressed through revision. The opener has to be a "grabber" so I try and focus on a scene (usually actiona packed!) that would make me want to read more! Patrice

  14. Good morning!

    Katie: I know! Each scene brings its own challenges, doesn't it?

    Nisa: Welcome! I usually have to flesh out the details of the ending scenes when I'm revising, so I'd say I'm guilty of the same!

    Cj: Phew! Glad I'm not alone!

    The Alliterative A: Striving for perfection is all we can really try to do. We probably always will be.

    Kelly: Great point. When we know the characters, not as much needs to be explained.

    Donna: Me too. I create a detailed scene list before my first draft and it really helps me keep moving through the middle.

    Lynn: You have your last line written first? Intriguing!!

    Wendy: Yes! The thrill of the first draft--only to be followed by the agony of revisions...

    Karen L: I agree, some book's beginnings come easier than others.

    Susan M: Yep. Same here! Hang on (and get a few Hersheys kisses to smooth the ride!).

    Ralene: Procrastinate? What's that? Ha! Ha! I'm the queen!

    Julie J: I've done that too--so painful!

    Jody: Thank goodness for revisions! I like that you don't pressure yourself for the perfect start during the first draft.

    Patrice: The middle tends to be my nemesis. It's because I'm not always certain of the progression.

    Thank you all so much for stopping by!

  15. I find writing beginnings quite challenging. So much is expected of us in those first few pages. I wrote six stories, rewrote four of them, and edited ad infinitum before I got one with a beginning that worked.

    One bit of advice that helped me learn to craft a good beginning was studying contest score sheets. I saw what elements are judged. I learned what need to be included (such as setting, sensory detail, and sympathetic characters) and what to avoid (back story dumps and overly long descriptions).

    Another recommendation I heeded is reading in my genre. I learn so much from studying the work of the many great inspirational historical writers out there.

  16. HARD! It has to make the reader want to stay, and trust you. I put a ton of work into the beginning.

  17. (bounced over to you from Southern Princess :)

    I hate writing beginnings most of the time. Every once in a while one will just pop and I know it's the perfect beginning, but most of the time I write it and move on, knowing that it stinks.

  18. Great list of things to consider with beginnings. Thanks, Jill!

    When I look critically at my beginning in the revision stage, one of the thinks I ask myself is: "What is the story I'm promising to tell? Am I communicating this in the opening pages?"

  19. Root canal hard.
    Somehow capture attention, gain likeability, create depth.


    Blessings on a great post.

  20. I can't wait to discuss opening lines. Mine beginning is still up in the air. I love it and I hate it.

  21. I usually whine my way through the first 25% of a book. :) After that, I have a better feel for the story and a better feel for the characters. Then I finish the book before going back to make revisions.

  22. If I go into it with the notion that "this can be fixed later" (and almost always is), I can usually get that beginning written fairly easy. Thank goodness for rewriting!

  23. Hard. Hard hard hard. There's so much to convey without making it backstory or info dumps, and there's so much to setup to ensure a brutal conflict. Then, I always have to go back and rework a gazillion times to make the tone, style, and info match the end (inevitably the book takes on a different rhythm as I progress.)

  24. Hi Jill -

    In a word, "HARD." Getting that first sentence hook and raising questions in the reader's mind takes a lot of thought.

    I've written and re-written my first chapters more times than I care to remember.

    Susan :)

  25. Keli: Great advice--reading the genre we write really makes a difference!

    T. Anne: You're right. The reader does have to trust the writer--good point!

    Rebecca T: Welcome! I'm glad you bounced over. You're in good company as the majority of us find beginnings HARD!

    Paul: Ooo, another good point. I've been disappointed (only a few times) by reading a great hook, only to find the book doesn't match.

    Patti: Root canal hard--oh yeah!

    Tamika: Same here!

    Erica: Isn't whining a job requirement? :)

    Melissa: Thank goodness for it-can-be-fixed-later, right?

    Georgiana: It's like a complicated recipe that needs each ingredient combined just so!

    Susan J: Me too, uggh!

    Kristen T: You're among similar writers!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  26. The first chapter is usually fast for me because I have a scene in my head. It's the second and third chapters that are killers for me! Bleck. And then sometimes the middle...yeah, I don't plan well. LOL

  27. well I'm not technically a fiction writer at this point (which makes me feel in the minority sometimes but I have dabbled in fiction a lot and I actually do write fictional stories in my secret life but I ah... never finish them :halo: Anyway, all this to say, I actually find the beginning easiest for me personally. It's what I usually get inspired for. Finishing and even occasionally continuing is my problem. So I need to get together with someone who has trouble with beginnings. Then I can start and they can finish :P

  28. LOL We are on the same wave length today--sort of:) I love beginnings and finally understand better how they should be and all that information in them. Now endings...

  29. I think research helps the begining be easier. Things fall into place when you have plenty of good ideas brewing.

  30. I agree with Katie; it can all be hard. But given enough time and patience, and trust in the process, and it all works out okay.

  31. I'm working on my first novel, and so far I have found the beginning difficult. I started by writing scenes from later in the book, this got the juices flowing and i was able to write the opening scenes. Now I'm stressing about how to flesh out the middle!

  32. Jessica: That's cool that beginnings come easily to you! I wish!

    L.E. Neighbor: Welcome! A fiction dabbler--maybe we can encourage you to go full out? :) I like your thought on merging strengths.

    Terri: We ARE on the same page! :)

    J.J. Bennett: True. For me, the idea of the beginning isn't hard, it's implementing my idea that proves difficult!

    Janna: Trust in the process?? Me?? Oh, yeah. You're right. I actually do trust in it after I've revised it for the millionth time. You're a genius, you know!

    ChickLitAuthor: Good for you! Isn't it exciting? Putting together your first book? I'm so happy for you!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  33. I love writing the beginning!! :D That's when I'm really excited about the whole story and the ideas are flowing from my fingers.

    Since I write suspense, I try to start my books with a mystery related bang. And I love writing action, so hooks are are a lot fun for me. :D

    That said, the story does change and suprise me as I write, so I always need to go back and polish the start. :)

  34. A very good post with great information. I find beginnings easy because I start with a character and just let them do something. I know my setting and a motivation. Of course, I rewrite that first couple of chapters over and over because I agree with you that it needs to be good and do all of the things you mentioned.

  35. Emily: I love how enthusiastic you are for beginnings! Is it contagious? Can I catch it? :)

    Nancy: Oh, you too! Send your enthusiasm for beginnings my way!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!


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