1. Cheyenne
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    Cheyenne Member

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    Beginnings. Quick and dirty, or slow build up?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Cheyenne, Mar 20, 2015.

    This may actually belong in general writing, but for now, I'm posting it here. If I'm wrong, mods, please inform me and I will move it.

    My question is this, as a reader and as a writer, how do you prefer your beginnings?

    Do you like to get to the action at word one of page one, or do you like a slower start, get to know the characters and care for them first?

    I ask because I've heard both sides and want to hear more.

    Right now, my MS has a somewhat slower beginning. Action doesn't start until chapter 2. Chapter one is a "normal" day, before fit hits the shan.

    I'm considering jumping right to Chapter two when I edit, and add chapter one's Scene's as drug-induced flashbacks/memories/thoughts. Thoughts? Question? Concerns?
     
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  2. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Slow-ish build up for me.

    If I'm thrown into the action on page 1, I assume it will be some tediously formulaic page-turner with some bullshit cliffhanger shoe-horned in at the end of each chapter.

    However a hook early on is important, some intrigue or building tension, something to keep me reading.
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Neither.

    I like to get to know the characters, but not with a normal got-up-took-a-shower-ate-oatmeal ordinary day. I want something that the characters regard as being important. But that something doesn't have to be the core of the plot.

    Let's go with monster movies:

    Reign of Fire started with the main character learning that he had just lost his scholarship for the good private school that he was attending. This was a huge, big-stakes thing for him and his mother. The reaction gave us some insight into the characters. Then the dragons tore everything apart.

    Tremors started with Val and Earl's dissatisfaction with their lives, and their plotting to turn their lives upside down by moving to Bixby. Then the giant worms tore everything apart.

    Night of the Comet started with Reggie having a conflict with her boss and her sister getting punched by her stepmother. Then the zombies tore everything apart.

    And so on.

    Edited to get to my point: So I recommend against the ordinary day. Start with a high-stakes day, as judged by the character's past life. Maybe they're taking the SATs, maybe they just wrecked the car and don't know how to tell Mom, maybe they just got fired, maybe they're afraid they're pregnant. Then tear their world apart.
     
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  4. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    The important thing to ask yourself is, "Why do I need to start the story with a normal day?"

    For most projects the answer is, "You don't."
     
  5. Cheyenne
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    Cheyenne Member

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    @ChickenFreak, I understand what you're saying, and I agree completely. For this project, though, they way it begins, at the very least, EVERY day is highstakes for my Main Character. As it begins now, you have some hints at bigger things going on in the world (i.e. The baker AND his son are conscripted. Reactions of character's show this is not a normal thing)

    @Jack Asher: The reason you start with a normal day is, as I've stated, to form a connection with the main character. A slow buildup does that whereas a bang right out the gate, doesn't nearly as much.

    @Chinspinner: Your concern is very valid, however, what if that same book then took a step back, slowed things down? Would that be too jarring? Would it seem like the beginning was a gimmick? I'm thinking of alternating the memories with her torture/confinement in the present.
     
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  6. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    In terms of pacing, hook, tension, and a few entirely plausible and consistent twists thrown in for good measure, Hugh Howey's 'Wool' has one of the best openings I have read. I am trying to think of others that come close, perhaps 'Perfume' for intrigue.
     
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, there is no right way/wrong way to begin a book, in terms of slow start versus fast start. Both can work, depending on circumstances. You are right to spot the biggest fault with the 'fast start' opener, though, @Cheyenne. It CAN be gimmicky. So many 'how to' books try to tell you that you should dive right in to some action scene, to get the reader on board immediately. That's fine, if you can also avoid confusing them as to what is going on, and make sure they understand either the nature of the conflict or its importance. However, not only can the action start appear to be a gimmick, but it can also result in a disappointing second chapter or scene, where the action inevitably drops off, and the backstory starts. Good authors can handle this, but I think it's a risky strategy for new authors. That's just my opinion.

    On the other hand, starting with an ordinary day is also problematic. We don't want to read page after page about alarm clocks going off, followed by showers, breakfasts, etc, if there is nothing special about these activities. If your story is set in a world we recognise, there isn't any need to do this. We all have alarm clocks, showers, breakfasts, etc. You can mention these things, if you need to, but just a sentence or two. No need to show us the entire scene. If you're starting off in a world we recognise, start with a hint of what is to come. What makes this day different from all the others? When does the main character realise he or she has a problem? Is there a moment when the main character has a flash of insight, or sees something new? These are the kinds of 'slow starts' that work beautifully. They are intriguing. It's intrigue you want to create at the start of a story, not heart-pounding excitement. You then build from the intriguing start to eventual heart-pounding excitement, with all sorts of other reader reactions in between. Suspense, satisfaction, interest, worry, grief, etc etc.

    Of course if your world is unfamiliar to the reader—such as a historical novel, one set in an exotic locale, or fantasy or sci-fi—you can start with what is ordinary in that world, because it won't be ordinary to the reader. In fact, mundane detail should be highly entertaining for the reader, provided you don't just info-dump it in. Make us see the world through the eyes of a character, if you can. However, it never hurts to also point out what is different about that character's 'ordinary' day. In other words, start at the point of change, if you can. Hint (strongly) that things are about to change. You can't go wrong with this kind of a start.
     
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2015
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  8. Cheyenne
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    @jannert What you describe is actually very close to the way it begins.

    It's not the world the reader knows, and even the main characters don't live as "normal" inhabitants of this world. Their lives are... well, they're not supposed to exist. The world is strictly controlled by the Emperor (that's his name AND title. He's a bit conceited.), and everyone is tracked and controlled. The MC's are some of those that live outside that control. Also, magic. Not normal at all.

    The beginning I have now, though, is a somewhat normal day for them. It starts off with Sparrow (FMC) leaving her job and going to the baker's. There she finds out that the baker and his son have both been conscripted. It's strongly hinted that that is outside the norm. Then the woman states that she knows about Sparrow and the children (Yes, they are all children.). She tells Sparrow to "take real good care of them children." Freaks Sparrow out.

    She returns to the others, we meet a couple of them, normal day, hunting and scavenging for food. Then a new child brings startling news (he's sensitive to magic). City magicians are coming. Sparrow convinces the other's to leave while she leads them away. She has magical ability, far beyond anyone else.

    That ends chapter one.

    Chapter two begins, we meet another group of ACTIVE rebels, (I need to heavily rewrite that scene though, and many that follow). Scene shift, we see Sparrow's capture.

    But anyway, while it's a slow buildup. It's not boring. It's definitely not normal.
     
  9. jannert
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    Well, you've done what I think will work ...when Sparrow discovers that the baker and his son have been conscripted. As long as this leads somewhere, it's exactly what is needed, I expect.
     
  10. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Slow does not have to mean boring. I agree with @jannert - don't start with the typical, ordinary day in your character's life; start with something important to the character. It doesn't have to be in the middle of the action, though. Action isn't always interesting. Don't bore the reader (says minstrel, quoting his own sig :) ).

    Maybe a good rule of thumb is this: If the character is bored, the reader will be, too. Most people are bored by their normal daily routine. The interesting parts of life are when something unusual is happening.
     
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  11. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    As you describe it it sounds very interesting. Much more engaging than a lot of immediate crash-bang then having to go back and explain why we the readers should care.
     
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  12. GingerCoffee
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    It just so happens I am working on chapter one right now.

    First, you don't need to settle on chapter one right away. My book is about 80% finished. It needs a few more chapters and one more major full book edit.

    While some people can write the first chapter first, I'm not one of them. Now that I have a clearer picture of the whole story, I am writing the first chapter.

    I went through many revisions and tossed my very short but much loved opening chapter.

    I was happy.

    Time passed, I made more edits and set it aside.

    I made more edits and it didn't impress. I replaced some ordinary with some fantastic, and added an actual prologue which I remain ecstatic about. I say prologue but actually it is two paragraphs and more symbolic than substantive.

    Finally it read well, it looked good but after feedback it still needed one more thing.

    It's not action you need to start with, it's not slow vs abrupt, it's revealing the conflict, it's giving the reader a reason to want to read the story.

    It helps if the beginning is interesting, but what matters the most is kind of like the first paragraph of a term paper, it has to introduce what is to come.

    I started going back through the books I liked to see if they did indeed reveal something about the story in the first paragraph or two. And they actually do.

    Once you are an established writer you can probably change from this convention, but as a new writer I want to use the advice.

    All I had to do with my first chapter to achieve this was rearrange a few paragraphs.

    The opening chapter introduces the main character, a bit of what her life is like, and a bit about the strange planet she lives on, and some tension. But the tension alone is not the main conflict in the story. Rather the story is the character's struggle with her roller coaster self esteem and her choice to do the right thing against the social pressure telling her it is the wrong thing.

    All I had to do to fix the first chapter was move this reveal up a few paragraphs. The character is arguing with herself. It was there, further down the chapter.

    It's not about spelling it out, it's just about introducing the conflict. That's easier to do once the story is written.

    Take a look at some popular books in your genre that you've already read. See if they don't reveal something important about the story in the first couple paragraphs. You can read openings on Kindle preview if the books are not available.

    Here are some examples (you'll have to open the previews):

    The Handmaids Tale opens with the character reminiscing about the life gone and the hardship (sleeping on a gym floor with others) of now. You find out right away someone else is in control.

    The Fifth Wave starts by telling us advanced aliens have arrived on Earth and things are not going well.

    Lilith's Brood starts with the character waking up slowly, painfully, and you see she is waking again and again into a state of complete dependency absent any information about what is going on except that a few things are different from the last time like her captors are using trial and error to get it right.

    Take any random sample, see if they do or don't reveal something key to the story, not just in the first chapter, but in the first couple paragraphs.
     
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  13. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Start with the tone that you intend to carry throughout the book. Start with a beginning suitable for your audience and/or genre. If you were writing an action thriller and decided to start the book with a romantic honeymoon where nothing except a romantic dinner happens, yeah you're gonna lose readers. If you started a romance with a gun fight rather than the aforementioned romantic honeymoon dinner, you're gonna lose readers.

    Start in a way that you intend to continue throughout the book.
     
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  14. BeastlyBeast
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    BeastlyBeast New Member

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    I would probably say right in the middle. Most books don't start with any serious conflict (Quite rare to see a fantasy book begin right in the middle of a battle or war with no context), but at the same time, most don't start with anything mundane, at least not recently. I think a question like this stems from authors trying to flee from the older ways of storytelling. Most fairy tales of the last few hundred years had valiant knights, stern enemies, evil dragons, and a waking up scene or a description of the weather was the beginning. But, now those are tired tropes and authors want to begin in newer fresher ways. Older stories started quite slow, so now authors want to start blazing fast. Readers want to reach the middle 5 pages in, nowadays! However, the best reads, IMO, are the ones where we start with a situation that founds the buildup to the main plot or conflict. Nothing super-mundane, but don't start right away with something heated. Hope this helped. :)
     
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  15. jannert
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    Ah, that's one of the most helpful posts I've ever read on this forum! I agree 100%. I had the same experience as Ginger did, with my own novel, and it wasn't until I revealed the seeds of the conflict in the very first scene, that I got it 'right.' And like Ginger, I think it's so important NOT to tinker over and over with a beginning, until you have your story completed or nearly completed. You won't really know what to start with, until you see the whole picture.
     
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  16. DeadMoon
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    DeadMoon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like a smack in the face type of opening. a slurry of explosive events and action then slow down and build up characters story line ect...
     
  17. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I don't think I define conflict the way you are using it here. There are many forms of conflict besides battle.

    The rest of your post made me want to go see how classic fairy tales start. I think I have a copy of 1001 Arabian Nights around here somewhere.
     
  18. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I do like laying out conflict very quickly, and the conflict introduced could be thematically connected conflict instead of the most central conflict. I'd think of the beginning of No Country for Old Men, when the sheriff is lamenting violence in their area. This conflict is not the central conflict in the story, but it introduces the themes of aging and the perceived devolution of society and fatalism.
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    No Country for Old Men starts with a prologue memory of sending a murderer with no soul to his execution. Then it starts with a criminal in custody. By the third paragraph the criminal attacks the deputy in a vicious way.

    I think we get the picture of what is to come.
     
  20. VirtuallyRealistic
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    VirtuallyRealistic Active Member

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    I think it depends on the individual story and what the author is trying to accomplish. If their intent is to keep the reader engrossed and excited through every paragraph, then a, "quick and dirty," beginning is probably fit. However, if the intent is extremely in-depth characters and plot, then a slow build up is likely more appropriate.
     
  21. Tim3232
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    Tim3232 Active Member

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    It almost seems a rule that to get on to the (UK) Crime Writer's Association Debut Dagger shortlist, the 3,000 word entry (+ synopsis) that you're judged on, has a murder, a body or violence of some sort. Even Louise Penny's runner up entry had a body - I wonder if she might have won had there been more action in her entry. I don't think action is necessary. Tension and/or hints of change providing a build up to the story work fine for me.
     
  22. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was thinking of the No Country movie. In the movie, the first scene of the sheriff worked well. Regardless, the point still stands.
     
  23. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    No, it doesn't. Screenplays are not books, the writing process is entirely different. What will work in a movie will get your manuscript tossed into the garbage.
     
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  24. Renee J
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    It depends on what you mean by action. I think something should happen, even if it's just some kid talking himself up in order to ask a girl out. You can show a lot about the character. And later when he's fighting the vampire pirates, the reader can remember how scared he used to be. But, if the beginning of the book was just him eating breakfast, going to school, saying 'hi' to his friends, it's probably not going to work.
     
  25. Ben414
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    I'm sure there are many successful books whose first scene (I was originally thinking in script terms--not chapters--although the idea could still be applied to a book) did not introduce the central conflict in the story. One example might be the main character waking up and everything going wrong. Her boyfriend dumped her via text message, her faucet broke and flooded her kitchen, and her car has a wheel clamp from the police because she hasn't paid her parking tickets. This could work by introducing the character, getting the reader to understand everything in her life is going wrong so the inciting incident can be emphasized when her life does a 180, and propelling the story into the second "scene" from her being late to work. All of this could be in the same chapter or in different ones, but I think it works without introducing the central conflict.

    (BTW, I remembered wrong on the movie's opening. It opened with a monologue of the sheriff that also included Chigurh being arrested.)
     

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