Writing Great Beginnings

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
–Kurt Vonnegut

The beginning of a story is critically important.  It is what sells the book, makes the teacher keep reading your piece, prompts the bookstore browser to buy.  We teach students that the beginning must include characters, setting, and a problem.  Of these three, Kurt Vonnegut and I agree that the problem is the key to a good beginning.

Before you are ready to write the beginning, you need to do a lot of thinking, some writing, and a little planning.  Start with your main character.  Begin a character profile that includes gender, name, and age.  My main character in On a Wing and a Dare is Daav, a sixteen year old boy.

Get to know your character like you get to know your friends.  Explore the character’s world.  Where does he/she live?  Go to school?  What is his/her family like?  What does he/she like to do?

In my novel, Daav’s school gets out for the summer in May so that the town can hold the Aerial Games, a competition of flying horses.  Daav’s parents, Milav and Rheyana, run a barn full of these flying horses and they compete in the aerial dances.  Daav’s brother, Eliv, is eighteen.  Eliv rides a racing flying horse.  They all live in the town of Tremirson, the only town in the world where flying horses exist.  Thirty barns compete each year in the Aerial Games, and fans, reporters, and tourists come from all over to watch.

Okay, that covers character and setting pretty well, but Daav needs a problem or there is no novel.  he has one.  During the summer of his sixteenth year, Daav is expected to become a rider to a winged horse.  However, he is secretly afraid of heights.  Daav’s childhood friend, Kamila, also sixteen, starts dating Eliv just when Daav realizes he cares for her himself.  Then the flying horses of Tremirson begin to die and the three teenagers must flout all kinds of traditions to save them.

In this case just the fear of heights would make a nice short story, but this is a novel so the problem must be more complex.  Make sure you pick a problem that fits the length of the piece you are trying to write.  Please don’t pick a complicated issue then have aliens swoop in to fix it all.  Or just give up and write ‘to be continued.’  But those are endings, and this is about beginnings!

Once you know your character and his/her surroundings, and you know what the major problem is, and you know who will help and who will hinder progress toward solving that problem, then you can begin.

Go back and read the quote that starts this post.  As Kurt Vonnegut says, the story must start with an action.  Do not spend a page describing your character.  Do not spend a page describing the town.  This type of writing is important so that you can immerse yourself in the character’s world, but it bores a reader.  Do that kind of writing in your journal, as a warmup.  Start the story with an action scene

On a Wing and a Dare begins with Daav’s mom asking him to take her place riding in the Opening Ceremony of the Aerial Games.  He is frightened to do so but doesn’t want to let her down.  Kamila rescues him, taking Rheyana’s place on the horse but learning about Daav’s fear of heights in the process.  During the flight, an accident occurs.  (See my Projects page for the complete first chapter)

If the beginning is crafted well, the reader blows right through it into the middle…but that is another post.  What books have you read that have amazing beginnings? Post them in the comments!

On my Kindle: Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne Duprau

3 thoughts on “Writing Great Beginnings

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  1. I’m a huge believer in planning. Right out of the starting gate I like to know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. It’s kind of the same with characters. If I know him/her intimately then it’s easier to figure out what situations they can or can’t handle and how to get them out of the ones I do drop them into. Thanks for your help on my first chapter! 🙂

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