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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Let's Begin

Beginnings matter.

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’.

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