From The Archives: About Story Beginnings

July 13th, 2011 • Kate

While I’m on vacation this week, I’m diving into my archives for a look at some of my favorite old posts. You voted on what you want to see, and this is the result. The following was originally published in April of 2010. Enjoy!

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 daphne.unfeasible@gmail.com. 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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