getting started. over and over and over and over a...

i know first pages and chapters rarely stay the same (or stay in the manuscript at all) from first draft to final, but i'm still agonizing over my current (non-existent) wip's beginning.

i've read posts and how-to writing books on the topic of the beginning lines and beginning pages.

nothing is helping me.  (well, it IS, but the knowledge of WHAT to do is not enough to fuel my fingertips into lighting a fire on my keyboard.)

i'm so very  stuck.

so, in the name of research and practice, i am writing this blog post for myself.  and maybe you.  if you need help too.   or if you want to try to help me.  if you happen to pinpoint a deeper problem in my blockage of words, (yes, i need a writopsychoanalysis.) feel free to let me know.

on beginnings:

i recently shared with you that i discovered i need to add more conflict in my stories.  to remedy that, i've been reading james scott bell's elements of fiction writing-conflict and suspense (an awesome, helpful read).

in his section  on beginnings, he says:  "What grabs them (the reader) is a character in motion...."  "Readers...will wait a long time for exposition....Act first, explain later.  You will never go wrong delaying exposition."  he wants us to include conflict right away on the first page and gives examples of how doing this through dialogue can be useful.  Confrontation up front will "...make for immediate reader interest."

so this goes along with what i decided, that i need to add conflict and confrontation at every turn.

still, i've started a manuscript in complete action and turmoil before,like i thought i was suppposed to, only to hear that i'm supposed to start just before that, in the ordinary world, just before the world goes topsy turvy.

so then i start too far in the ordinary world and get boring again--

the book i'm trying to write is sci-fi, grouned heavily in reality.  so i tend to start in that real world and then the topsy turvy (inciting incident) is when my protag realizes her world really isn't so ordinary.  the problem i encounter in doing this is my beginning is boring.  boring first lines (or as jsb suggests my problem is in trying to be lyrical or in starting by describing the weather...), boring first pages, boring first chapter(s).

so today i'm examining first lines and how far away the inciting incident is from that first line.

just finished possession (by elana johnson):

"Good girls don't walk with boys."

This is what the protag is used to: rules and not following them.  This time, however, conflict occurs within paragraphs, and then within pages.  The boy she is with, and is used to being with, is acting a little off.  Then, although she's used to hovercopters above--and the worry of being found out by them--, this time she is incarcerated by one.  And the story, adventure, action and conflict take off.

just started divergent (by veronica roth):

"There is one mirror in my house."

Again, this is what the protag is used to and the author uses this information, along with the descriptions to follow, to describe the ordinary world of the character.  We, the readers, see that her world is different than the one we are used to, just enough, to prepare us for it to change.  Within pages, the protagonist's world view will change as it is the day aptitude tests are taken to set the protag on her future path as her grown up self.

in both of these cases, the novels are dystopian.  so off the bat, the world is intriguing and different for the readers.  i love these types of books and i can't wait to flip, flip, flip through the pages to find what kind of world the authors created.

so...this leads me to think i should NOT start out in a world that is too based on our reality.  (unless i'm writing a contemporary, in which case i'd need to start out with how, exactly, the world is different for my protag than others living presently.)  but since i'm writing sci-fi, i should start in a different world so it has that feel from the get go.  why suprise my readers pages or chapters in?  readers should know what kind of book it is, what kind of world they are reading about as soon as possible.

also, i tend to try to draw out the suspense.  hence, making the readers wait for conflict.  what for?  that is the wrong choice. that is the ONLY thing that will make them WANT to turn the pages.  that, and and an interesting and sympathetic character.

which brings me to another source of complication for me (character development).  and i will address the character issue in a near future post.

shatter me (by tahereh mafi):

"I've been locked up for 264 days."

It's different from our world, yet ordinary for the protag.  It begins mere pages before her world changes (she gets a cellmate) and she is set on a path of constant conflict.

hunger games (by suzanne collins):

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold."

The first chapter describes her ordinary world and then brings us to the reaping, which sets the protag on an immediate path of change and conflict.

across the universe (by beth revis):

Daddy said, "Let Mom go first."

This starts out in a state of change.  As the family (in their last moments of normalcy) is about to embark upon a voyage that will change the protag's life forever.

i'm stopping here.  there are other books on my stack that i planned to use in this post, but their beginnings differ (from the ones above) and confuse me (on how to start my own).  they're  wonderful, and i don't mean anything negative by saying they are different. they use a different approach and a different writing style, styles i admire and wish i wrote with, but they are the ones that lead me to "try" to be poetic and lyrical and overly descriptive (envision purplish words).  so, i'll stick with the ones above.  1-start with a simple sentence that shares the protag's "ordinary" world (and shows the reader how that world is different from theirs).  2-don't wait more than a few paragraphs to initiate conflict (whether its internal--a decision to be made, a worry, a fear or external--an exam, a lock-up, a confrontation).

Then I need to start a series of events that follows this outline:

and, again, that will be something i work on in a future post.


  1. Ugh...beginnings. For some writers, that's their favorite part. Not for me. I've literally rewritten the beginning of my YA novel eight times. (I'm really picking that number out of a hat. I've lost count at my new beginnings.) I think the most important thing to do is just write. If you have a story worth telling, start writing anywhere within the story. The true beginning may come to you.

  2. I'm still struggling with my opening. I had one. Someone felt I needed to start sooner in the story and with more suspense. Did that. It failed. I needed to start with normal, which in my mc's case, normal is struggling with her brother's death from two weeks ago, but the inciting incident is her going back to school and being in the one class they shared together. Hopefully that works. :)

    Great post!!!!

  3. Wow, that's a lot to take in. Honestly? I just go with my gut. I go with how my story wants to start out, you know? Sometimes I think you can look into it TOO much- analyze it too much. Not every book should start with conflict, and not every book should start with more background info. It has to feel right with YOUR book. I hear conflicting opinions from agents and editors all the time- some like it to immediately start with conflict/action. Other's want to be set up more, with the inciting incident a little father down. My first book I"m querying, has a little more introduction- it's a traditional fantasy and I feel those need to build up to the inciting incident, especially my book. (it's only a few pages in though, not too far along.)(look at Graceling- she has a bunch of intro in the beginning that actually almost made me set it down, but it's a best seller) But with my second one I'm working on, the very first pages starts out with action- BOOM. Hits you in the face. Because that's how it was supposed to start. Anyway, it just has to make sense with the rest of the story. You can't force it to start with action if it's not supposed to, you know? Yes, it can be tweaked and maybe someone else will see potential for starting it another way. So when you feel conflicted and people are telling you different ways to start it, just sit back and really look at your story. How SHOULD it start? The beginning needs to work with the book, not against it. You don't want someone thinking you just shoved that in there because some people said you were supposed to, you know? (remember how subjective this business is?) Good luck! I know you can do it!

  4. These are excellent examples of great first sentences (some of my favs!). The key is to have it create suspense, mystery, or raise a reader's curiosity. Hook them and then real them in. You can do it!

  5. Ok, so I'm now (inevitably) looking at my own first sentence and seeing whether it matches the "formula" you're trying!

    My assignment tonight is cuter than most.

    Simple sentence ✔
    Shows what is "ordinary" for the protag (a night-time assignment), while also showing that it's different from the reader's world (well, unless my readers also go out on assignments at night!) ✔
    Doesn't wait more than a few paragraphs to initiate conflict ✔ (Conflict arrives in paragraph 5 or 6)

    So, it looks like one of my works, at least, follows the same pattern you're aiming for!

    xx Rachel


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