Ask Daphne! About Story Beginnings

April 19th, 2010 • Kate

IMG_0766_editedIt’s been a while since I’ve answered some of your questions, so I think that’s going to be the plan for this week. If you have a burning publishing or writing question you’d like me to address in a future post, send me an email at Today’s question comes from Barb, who writes:

I’m editing my manuscript and, knowing the beginning of my story is crucial, I have a couple of questions concerning beginnings.

My story is written in third person POV, unlimited; the main character doesn’t appear in every scene. Should the beginning of the story include the MC? Is it okay to start a story in the head of a secondary character? (My concern is that the query letter introduces the MC, but the agent won’t get to read much about the MC in the first 3 pages.)

Is it cheating to use a preface which reveals drama that happens later in the story? For example, in Twilight, the preface sets up the end of the story. Thanks for your invaluable help to the writing community!

Ok, first of all, with a third person narrative I don’t expect the MC to be in every scene, so it’s totally cool with me if the introduction to your novel starts with a different character. That said, however, is this other character introduced in the query? Am I going to know whose head I’m in when I look at your first three pages, or am I going to feel clueless?

Maybe you start with the MC’s love interest, or bete noir, or annoying little brother. Whatever. So long as they’re a character that’s important enough to mention in the query, I’m find with meeting them in the first three pages and not the MC.

Those pages aren’t just to learn about the MC — they’re for an agent to get a sense of your writing style, and see if you’ve hooked their attention. If you want to do that with a character that isn’t the person you’ve hung the rest of your story upon, who am I to stop you?

That said, I think prologues are a different ball of wax. I’m against them in general, though I’ve seen some work well. You ask about a preface that reveals drama that happens later in the story. I can’t help but think of a number of episodes from the last few seasons of Alias where the opening scene was something big and exciting and thrilling… and then we flashed to “48 Hours Earlier,” and the whole drama of things was somewhat lost on me. Yes, it can work, but done poorly — or even just less than expertly — it feels like a trick. When Kristin Nelson and I looked at some first pages a few months ago at a local SCBWI meeting, we were struck by how many authors tried to manufacture drama in their opening scene using just this method. In writing, it’s often seen as starting the book in the wrong place. In TV — well, I don’t know what they call it, but it feels like a trick.

I hope this helps!

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6 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About Story Beginnings”

  1. What lures you? « The JMac Weekly Says:

    […] 19, 2010 Synchronicity speared its head as this blog [—I  haven’t yet learned to those fancy, embedded blog links] came at a crucial time for me. For […]

  2. Kate Says:

    I want to share an email I received from another reader, which asks some intriguing follow-up questions (the link above is also to her questions). As follows:

    Thank you for today's blog on story beginnings. Synchronicity speared its head as this blog came at a crucial time for me. For the last week, I've been contemplating the opening for my narrative non-fiction book. Actually, I amend: I've been re-contemplating it.

    The meat of the book is written in an unpolished form, yet the opening still evades me. I've been studying books I believe to have hooked me. What does their opening have? What does it have in relation to the whole story? I dare say, many of them do begin in the future.

    For me, this is the only logical conclusion for what I'm writing. I wonder though, is it fear in our writing that makes us believe this? Is it fear that we haven't "captured" the reader, that their lips won't be dripping with our opening words? Why can't we just trust our stories, trust the inevitable unfolding as it is meant to happen?

    I also consider, particularly in narrative non-fiction or memoir, we need to know what's at stake for the author. The easiest way to do this is to dive into a future happening. Is it the right place? I don't know. I'll admit, easy implies cheap trick, as you mentioned.

    So I guess this is what I'd love to know: What compels you? What, specifically, draws you into a book?

    I've never believed in writing with one eye on the audience. I believe the greatest stories are the ones that are burning to be told. When an author quiets him or herself enough to hear it, the story will unfold exactly as it ought to. Those are the best books. Still, in these later stages of writing, I'm researching and realizing that marketability does matter. So my question remains: what makes you ignore the outside world and tune into only the words on the page? What drives you to flip the page quickly or to read slowly, savouring every word like a last forkful of cheesecake?

    Thank you for your time. Thank you for your blog.

  3. Becka (Fie Eoin) Says:

    I can't say for non-fiction, because I will read a non-fiction book for the content, not the grab-you-and-keep-you beginning. But as far as fiction goes, I like a snappy beginning that leaves you with a question. I don't like long, flowery descriptions in the beginning. I like to start in the middle of something and be left wondering what is going on and why.

    My favorite first line? "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Who is the man in black? Why is he fleeing from a gunslinger? Is he going to be caught? That's what I want to know right from the first sentence.

  4. Julie Weathers Says:

    I've been struggling with the same thing on two openings. Both of the stories are epic fantasy and both sitting at around 25,000 words.

    In one, I decided to add a new opening chapter that starts out with action and actually instigates the mc to challenge the council after her only child is nearly captured.

    That actually works because it's a valid scene. It's exciting and it isn't a phony set up. The second chapter can then go on to her thinking about her dead husband's spirit as she gets ready to go to the meeting.

    I don't like action openings just for the sake of wowing the reader. It has to be logical to be there and it needs to seamlessly fit into the next section.

    The second one was a bit trickier. It stated with a good hook, but then I went into three paragraphs of description. I knew I had to work that in later. I went back to the action even though it isn't something grand, it set up the conflict. I'll write in the descriptions of the various people later as I introduce them.

    Part of these changes have come from feedback and part from the learning process. While I love intricate, detailed world-building, not everyone does. Now, I start out with my main characters or at least introduce them through someone else.

    I'm also one of the few people who love prologues, I guess. I bought GAME OF THRONES because of the luscious prologue and was thrilled when the characters from it tied into the story.

    I learned at a conference not to start a story with description. I entered the Idol contest with my WIP. There were two agents on the panel who had asked to see it just based on the query and shooting the bull with them. When Jack Whyte started reading it, the first two agents who held up their hands and said to stop were the ones who had asked me to submit. They liked the story, but the opening bored them to tears.

    It was a tough lesson, but one I took to heart. Open with something interesting. Set up some conflict.

  5. Rissa Watkins Says:

    I have read books that don't start in the MC's POV. It's tricky but it can be done.

    I do kinda think prologues are cheating. I really don't like the Twilight ones. Funny I never thought about it with the Alias 48 hours earlier episodes, but yes, they do kinda have that feel to them.

    I don't read non-fiction, but with fiction I used to be much more patient and willing to give an opening some time to hook me in before quitting. Now I don't. I don't know if that is a product of having a child and a lot less time or reading a lot of YA which tends to hit the ground running.

  6. kt literary » Blog Archive » From The Archives: About Story Beginnings Says:

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