We’ve been told this so often as writers that it’s ingrained in our minds. Some of us probably mutter it in our sleep. We all know that a beginning has to hook, to intrigue without confusing, and to introduce character whilst hinting at theme, premise and plot. It’s a mammoth task.
Working on the opening of a novel for my MA last year I sat down with my tutor to discuss it. She’d drummed into us that we should start in the middle of the action, let the reader play catch-up. I’d done exactly that: my opening scene portrayed two brothers, Joe and Dougie, breaking into a flat without any real explanation. We learn that it’s not a burglary and that Joe is looking for something unspecific there, but we also learn Dougie is a police officer and therefore should know better than to break and enter. In this opening scene I tried to hint at character and the brotherly relationship whilst interesting the reader in why the men are breaking in, and also describe a location that plays a pivotal role later in the novel.
My tutor was very appreciative of it. But her one cautionary question was, ‘how confused do you want the reader to be?’. There’s a fine line between hooking your reader and just baffling them so much they give up on the entire novel.
I rewrote accordingly. Instead of the scene starting as Joe and Dougie broke into the flat I joined them onto the approach to the tower block. This gave the reader a few seconds to adjust to the scenario and to get a little of the characters fixed in their heads before they break into the flat. I needed to show that Joe and Dougie were essentially good men and this alteration gave me the chance to hint at that whilst also rooting the reader in the story a little more.
That novel is on the backburner for a while. I’m currently working on the 3rd draft of another novel, the first one I actually managed to complete a draft of (two drafts actually!). This one begins with a lull in proceedings: my protagonist, Lily, is painting in her office at a self-storage facility. The first paragraphs are slow; allowing the reader to feel their way in gently before a man arrives wanting to deposit some goods at the facility.
At the moment, I’m torn. I feel it starts too slowly, that my reader will have closed the book long before I reach the ‘interesting’ part, the inciting incident of the man arriving which shapes the entire novel. On the other hand, I feel like Lily needs to be explained prior to the man’s arrival. But I still haven’t decided whether I’m pandering to what I want or what’s best for the reader.
As writers we have a duty to entertain. Yes, we can include entertainment for ourselves in that category, but no scene/paragraph/sentence should value our desires above the story’s needs. I’ve no doubt my beginning will be tweaked many times before I consider this novel ‘good enough’.