Where Should I Begin?

So what makes a good beginning to a story?

I’ve been asking myself that since I starting revising my novel-in-progress.  The beginning of the first draft was okay, but I didn’t feel it grabbed me hard enough, shook me twice, and dragged me into the story.  It was lacking that…I don’t know…something.

My experience is predominantly in writing short stories, but they are fundamentally different from novel beginnings?  Many short stories seem to start with a bang, right at the event that incites the story’s main action.  There isn’t time for a gradual build up, no time to get to know the characters before the bad things start happening, and little place to wax poetically about love, life or the setting.  Yet I’ve seen all of these in novel beginnings.

So what makes a good beginning for a novel?  A killer first sentence?  A solid first page?

I think short story and novel beginnings are fundamentally the same.  At the most basic level, I think beginnings need to tell the reader that something is off; that something is wrong.  It should instill in the reader a sense of tension.  In a short story I think this is done in that first sentence or paragraph at the most.  Ideally it’s the same for a novel.  That first line doesn’t need to be an overblown hook (same in a short story, in my opinion, but I think you see the big hook first line more often in short stories), but it should promise that something is not quite right.  A couple of my favorite speculative fiction beginnings are 1984 (“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”) and Neuromancer (“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”), both of which convey a sense of something wrong with the world.  They both suggest something ominous and make me want to keep reading.  And how about this opening from another one of favorite books, The Forever War: “Tonight we’re going show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”  Wow, I need to read on.

So, as I was saying, I’ve been working on the opening of my novel, and I don’t have anything I like quite yet.  What I have after some work is better than what I started with, certainly, but it still doesn’t leave me with that unsettled feeling.  If I were a reader, I think I could still put it down.  Guess I’ll have to keep working on it, and working, and working….

About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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