lea schafer, editor, freelance editor, romance editorMuch has been said about judging a book by its cover. Nowadays, at least in the area of commercial fiction, a book is judged almost as much by its beginnings as it is its cover. Yes, the cover attracts our eye, but if the first few pages can’t hold our interest, that’s a DNF — Did Not Finish, a big black mark on your record with a reader. So how do you get a good beginning?

Who the Characters Are Now

The first thing we need is to establish where the characters are in their lives right now. If we don’t know where they are now, we can’t be interested in what the conflict means in their lives. How do we get to know them? No via an info dump! Remember:

– what they do reveals who they are

– what they say reveals who they are

– what they observe reveals who they are

jrw-cover-dl-medInstead of telling the reader who your characters are now, let their actions, dialogue, and observations reveal their personality and the way they view life. Let’s look at an example from an author who is arguably one of the most — if not the most — popular paranormal romance author today, JR Ward. The book that started her paranormal career, Dark Lover, begins like this:

Darius looked around the club, taking in the teeming, half-naked bodies on the dance floor. Screamer’s was packed tonight, full of women wearing leather and men who looked like they had advanced degrees in violent crime.

Darius and his companion fit right in.

Except they actually were killers.

What do we learn here? Of course, where our pov character is right now, in a not so nice club/bar. We learn without being told how our pov character (and his companion) look — “like they had advanced degrees in violent crime.” If they fit right in, and this is what the men around them look like, it’s a given that this is what they look like. We also learn how our pov character sees himself: “they actually were killers.” It doesn’t tell us they killed someone, who, or why. It says they are killers. One other thing. They might be in a club called Screamer’s, fitting right in with the others who look like killers, but we know Darius isn’t your typical criminal. Why? Because most criminals do not use having advanced degrees as a comparison. So Darius is educated.

That’s a lot of description in very few words, and none of it is outright telling.

Drop the Reader into the Action

During my vacation last week, I was discussing beginnings with a much older friend who loves Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Though my friend was old-school when it came to fiction, he said something interesting. He said he finds himself skipping description because it gets too tedious. This is the rule for commercial fiction today: drop the reader into the action.

Yes, some very popular authors, well-established authors, can get away with long descriptions, but most cannot, not anymore. Our need for speed has transferred itself to the area of fiction, and our readers want the story to MOVE. Five pages of setting won’t fly with today’s reader. You must establish the characters, their conflict, and the purpose of the story in five pages, not the setting or the characters’ looks. Action first; sprinkle the rest in over time.

Starting at the beginning isn’t necessarily starting with action either. Do we need to know about someone coming into a room, settling down in a chair, fiddling with the cushions…or do we want them to get on with the gossip they’re about to spill to Susie May? Unless you’re setting up a particular mood for a very good reason, don’t start when the character comes through the door — start with the juicy stuff.

macrieveAnother example, perhaps? How about Kresley Cole‘s fabulous MacRieve? The book begins with a prologue, but note Cole doesn’t start with description. She drops us right into the moment of greatest conflict for our hero in that period of his life:

In a dark forest, in a dour land, stood an enchanted cottage. Within it, Uilleam MacRieve was about to bicker with his mate, Lady Ruelle.

Yet again.

Cole has already told us this even occurred centuries ago via the heading. Her first sentence gives us setting, yes, but in such a way as to set up the conflict — we have what is essentially a fairy-tale setting, including an enchanted cottage, but what is occurring inside isn’t the joy between mates that we normally associate with such a setting. Instead, we have a bickering couple. All is not  well in our fairy-tale land.

Know the Important Stuff

What is the important stuff?

– goals

– motivation

– conflict

– stakes

Most authors establish these important details for themselves in the plotting process. The things is, it isn’t just the author who needs to know them; it’s the reader. Why? Because if we don’t know there are stakes involved, we won’t care about the characters, and if we don’t care about the characters…well, you know what happens. The “important stuff” is what makes us care about what happens in this story. At the end of five pages, if I don’t know something is at stake, that the characters need something and can’t get it/accomplish it, I’m not invested in the story. We have a short window of time to make the reader care enough to keep reading, and GMC/S helps us do that.

Now, do all four of these have to be spelled out explicitly? No. Your character can have some secrets. Do we have to know, as a reader, that they have a motivation, even if we don’t know what it is? Yes. Do we have to know they have a goal? Yes, even if we don’t know exactly what that goal is, or even if we’re mistaken or misled as to their goal. A directionless character is as uninteresting as a motionless character. Don’t just move them; move them for a reason — and let us know something really bad is going to happen if they don’t achieve that goal.

So there you are, a few things that can take the beginning of your story from “meh” to “wow!” Take a look at the beginning of your WIP. Does it show your characters instead of tell? Does it drop us into the middle of the action? Does it establish GMC/S? If not, try focusing on these three things to create a truly great beginning for your story.

– Lea


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