Monday, October 27, 2014

The History of Beginning: Choosing a Starting Point

"The idea of beginning, indeed the act of beginning, necessarily involves an act of delimination by which something is cut out of a great mass of material, separated from the mass, and made to stand for, as well be, a starting point, a beginning..."
                                                                                 -Edward W. Said, Orientalism
You know, I really think my theory professor would be proud to see me actually putting my homework to good use.

I think we can all agree that beginning a novel can sometimes be the hardest part. Not just beginning it, but deciding where to begin. As usual, I cannot tell you the right answer; should you open with your character waking up from a nightmare? Or maybe finally exorcising that pesky ghost? Stealing candy from a baby? Or maybe it's the last day of school and they burst through those double doors, never to enter the building again until the end of summer?

When's too early and when's too late? Start too early and you're going to bore the reader; start too late and you're going to risk confusing the heck out of them. Either one can earn you a pacing too slow or too fast.

Seriously, deciding when to start your novel's a freaking physics equation. Those engineering majors have it easy compared to us. And while I can't tell you when to start (although, heck, I'm more than willing to shoot out some random ideas), I do have some tips that have to do with that quote I put at the top of this thing (and you thought I was just showing off my homework, weren't you?):
  • No matter where you begin, understand that there's some part of the story that you won't be able to tell. You've seen that iceberg info-graphic, right? five percent is above the water (that's what the reader gets), and ninety-five percent is under the water (what the reader will probably never know). You can't tell you character's entire life story, nor can you give a detailed history of the world your novel is set in. Understand from the start that there's some things that you'll know, but the reader won't.
  • With that in mind, start sifting through your information: what does the reader need to know right at the start? What can be explained later in the novel, through flashbacks (use these very carefully, though), or through some kind of explanation? If need be, make a chart, one side things that aren't life-or-death important (like, the character's favorite cartoon character when she was five), and things that are extremely necessary for the reader to know (like the moment that changed their life). Two extremes, maybe, but sorting these details into different places can help you figure out what needs to be narrated to the reader (the moment that changed their life), and the things that can appear as a simple detail later on (the character's best friend teasing them about their 5-year-old cartoon crush).
  • Now, look at your Need-to-Know column. What are the most important pieces? From that list, what does the reader need to know the moment they start reading your book? That's a good place to start, at least for a first draft (remember: you can always change where your book begins later on when you have more knowledge about your characters and setting).
That's basically the best place to start, in my opinion. Figure out what the reader needs to know about your main character, and figure out how to work it all into a scene. Examine what's been left out, what happened before that scene, and work out what parts of that "before" time need to somehow make their way into the rest of the novel-it can come in handy when trying to figure out character motivations and future events that are ripples from things that happened in the past.

Just remember: your characters had lives before you met them. It's your job to decide which pieces of them are important enough to greet the reader on page one.

Tweet It:

Every beginning is a part of a bigger story. @Rae_Slater weighs in on how to decide where your novel should start (Click to Tweet)

Your characters had lives before you met them, but what's the best place to introduce them to readers? via @Rae_Slater (Click to Tweet)

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