‘Please help,’ wrote the author to me. ‘I’ve been writing a novel, I have a mass of text but no idea how to pull a plot out of it.’
We’re now doing well with the plot. But one big thing is holding her back.
‘Should this be the opening? Or this?’
We don’t know yet, I say. Don’t worry. Write a placeholder scene, and make the decision later.
We talk. We make much progress about themes, events and character arcs. Then my author returns to the question. Should this be part of the beginning? Or this? We haven’t even got to the first plot point. (What’s that? Here are posts about story structure.)
My author is finding it extraordinarily hard, very counter-intuitive, to postpone the decision about the beginning.
Why now is not the time to decide the beginning
Although you have to start somewhere, you cannot decide the proper opening until you know the rest of the book very well. Here’s what an ideal opening has to do.
1 It holds a lot of information back.
(You didn’t expect me to say that.)
2 It tells the reader just enough.
(Just enough for what?)
It tells the reader enough to make promises. About the tone, style, themes. About how the narrative will scrutinise the characters and events. About the issues and experiences the story will explore. Those are deep promises, and you must live up to them. (How do you know which promises to make?)
There’s also a 3:
3 The beginning should intrigue, beguile, ignite the reader’s curiosity. And in a way that’s faithful to 2.
Some beginnings are simpler than others
Beginnings are simpler for genre writers, as the reader’s expectations are relatively well established. But if you’re writing a novel that’s more complex or unconventional, you have to direct the reader to your unique flavour – your themes and angles and interests. You might not yet be aware of them all.
Certainly you won’t know them as you’re assembling the book for the first time, from all your swirling ideas. Perhaps not until you’ve made several revisions. (That’s one of the meanings of revision. Not just rewriting. Re-vision. )
The beginning is somewhere in the end
Here’s a nice cryptic idea. The story’s resolution, the what-it’s-all-about moment, will also be, in some way, signalled in the beginning. Probably obscured, of course.
Why is your ending your ending? Usually because a question is solved or a situation concluded. In some novels, particularly non-genre, you may not be sure at first what you’re solving or concluding. The biggest questions will stir up as you live with your themes, plot and characters, the angles that most attract you as you write and revise. Go with that, let the book become what it becomes. If it’s taking you a surprisingly long time, you might be cheered by this: the slow-burn writer.
Your ending will probably work best if it’s somehow signalled in the beginning, so once you know where the bulk of the book is taking you, you can shade the beginning appropriately. But if you fix the beginning from the start, you may limit your explorations. (There’s more about this in my plot book.)
Start here… for now
Write a placeholder opening, something that gets you going. Don’t worry at all about whether it works for the reader. Make sure it works for you, gets you in the flow. This draft, and probably others that will follow, is for you, your playground, your lab, your quarry, your rehearsal.
The beginning, the official proper beginning, is for the final performance, when you’ve done all the other work and are ready to invite readers in.
(Thanks for the bike picture Paul Harrop.)
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