It’s been over three years since I wrote about how and how not to begin your book, which certainly seems like enough time that I could get away with writing about it again. Unfortunately I reread my most from 2008 and realized and don’t have a lot to add. The things I wrote about back then still suck the life out of a story and will almost definitely get you thrown out of the slush pile quicker than getting the agent’s name wrong. So go back and read that post if you haven’t.
Instead I’m going to write today about why doing the things that lots of beginning authors tend to do is almost always wrong.
First, as thinking beings, we tend to take the path of least resistance. We take the quickest route to the grocery store, buy the easiest foods to prepare, and look for the shortest line at the check out.
There’s nothing wrong with this at all. It makes sense to do what is easiest, quickest, and well known . . . most of the time. But what if the easiest and quickest—the thing we are naturally drawn to—is not as good? Maybe the food that is quick and easy to prepare tastes bland. Or the shortest route to the store is unsafe or depressing to drive through. Then you have to weigh ease against result.
The problem with following your first instinct in writing is that there is almost always a better way to do it that is harder.Let’s take waking up for example. It’s really easy to start a story with your MC waking up. That’s when the day starts. It’s a natural beginning. As a result, it has become a cliché. Starting your book with a character waking up is nearly as bad as starting with “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s been done so much and with so many variations that it’s impossible to sound fresh.
More than that, though, it’s just not as good as other options. The goal of the first page is to grab the reader’s interest and attention. It’s hard to do that by waking up. Waking up beginnings trend to lend themselves to backstory. MC wakes up, groans, thinks about what a terrible day today is going to be, flashes back to what happened the night before that makes this day so terrible.
Notice that none of this is gripping. It’s the internal narrator in our head saying, “Before I actually get to the story, let me fill you in on where we are.”
Anyone who knows me very well, knows I am not a big proponent of prologues. It’s not that prologues can’t be done well. I’ve read some wonderful prologues. But the vast majority of the time writers use prologues because they are lazy. First chapter starts off slowly? Add an exciting prologue. Need to give a bunch of backstory, but know that’s not the way to begin chapter 1? Prologue to the rescue.
Before you write a prologue ask yourself if your beginning is gripping without it. If not, fix that first. Next ask if you are providing backstory that could be included in the actual story instead. If so, do that. A prologue should be like that awesome filling they put inside cupcakes sometimes. The cupcake is great without it. But it adds a little something fun without taking away from the dessert itself.
Let’s take another example. Character looks in the mirror and describes what they look like.
Mike stared into the water-stained mirror and ran a hand across his stubbly cheek. He was a decent-looking guy. In his late forties. Hair starting to gray, but still full. Women tended to be attracted to his strong jaw—that could actually bench press more than most other men’s arms.
If you haven’t read at least one book with this kind of scene in the first few pages, you aren’t trying hard enough. It’s a cliché. Tons of authors have done it. Why? Because it’s an easy way to tell the reader what your MC looks like. That’s reason enough to avoid it.
But again, there is a better reason. It’s heavy-handed. It stops the story and says, “Let’s pause here for a moment while I describe what my character looks like.”
In programming they talk about “elegant” coding. You could write 200 lines of code that accomplish what you want. But a good programmer realizes that by working a little harder, he can cut the lines to 100 and maybe even create a subroutine that can be reused later in the program. He spends a little more time, and creates elegant code that will make the program run that much faster and more efficiently.
You can do the same thing with your writing. Instead of stopping the story to look in the mirror, have the MC pull on her queen-size panty hose or realize his double X shirt is straining at the buttons. Have her stand on her tippy toes to reach the cereal bowl cupboard or brush a strand of white hair from her wrinkled cheek. You can tell us what the MC looks like, how old they are, how tall, how much they weigh, without ever stopping the story. It’s cleaner, more elegant, writing.
I could go on and on with examples, but the key is to remember that in writing, nine time out of ten, the first option you think of or the easiest option is almost always not the best one. That doesn’t mean to always try to use big words or create complex sentences. Elegant writing can be very utilitarian. But don’t go with your first story idea. Play with it awhile. Don’t stick with a single storyline. Spice up your book with several stories interwoven. Instead of having your MC and her love interest fight because they just don’t get along. Come up with some background, some motives, some twists.
Hamburger Helper can work fine at home. My kids still love it. But in your writing, work from scratch.