Beginnings Part 1
You know what’s the worst? When I read a query and it sounds AWESOME and then this happens:
“Once there was a boy named Pauline who did an extraordinary thing that you can’t wait to read about, and before I can tell you anything about that, I must explain the entire history of his life from the day he was born, plus the whole rest of his town and family. You see, there was this house. It was a gigantic Gothic thing, built by Dr. Gormless von Bandcamp, Pauline’s mother’s father’s father…” And then approximately five more pages of this before anything resembling the real story starts.
I feel like I’ve been duped. I’ve been offered a story about a kid doing something extraordinary, and what I’m getting is backstory. Which is like getting backwash when someone offers you a sip of cool, refreshing lemonade. And you know what happens if I can’t skim the bliz blaz to quickly find the real story? I stop reading.
You know how They say to start in the action? Yes, do that. It’s a very good idea. Ungrounded, random narration with nary a character to connect to is as disorienting as opening a door into zero-g. I wonder why it’s happening, and when there will be something to grab onto so I can stay upright.
Starting in the action doesn’t mean opening with your character running to catch a speeding train, but I will dedicate another post to that. I mean that a scene should open on a character doing something; delivering cookies to a homeless person via unicycle; changing the toilet paper roll, it doesn’t entirely matter. Readers are pretty smart, they’ll catch on. And when they do, you can layer in the backstory as you go along, revealing exciting things at moments that maximize the information.
Beginning at the beginning doesn’t mean the beginning of time, or of someone’s life, or even (especially?) when they wake up in the morning. It might take some thinking to figure out what the real beginning of your story is. But you’re a writer, and good portion of writing is thinking, yeah? Look for that thing that sets off a chain of events and start slightly before that. It’s the difference between a tome and a page-turner.
Don’t be dense.