Once upon a time…
In the beginning…
Call me Ishmael…
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…
Beginnings are inevitable, but good beginnings—are essential. And challenging. We’re told we must hook the reader in the first few words and that effective introductions will make or break our story, our message.
We need the attention grabber, and we’re told to use something like a startling fact, a quippy quotation, a top-of-mind question, or suspenseful narrative. The first line, we’re told, is everything: draw the reader in within seconds or you’ve lost them forever. They’ve clicked or swiped away. They’ve moved on.
It’s a lot of pressure to get the beginning right, so we fret and stew about whether we’ve begun our piece in the best possible way, and we can end up frozen, paralyzed by the thought that we don’t have what it takes to hook the reader. The story stalls before it even gets started because we can barely begin.
Start Writing to Get the Piece in Motion
The simplest answer to this problem is: Just write.
Seriously, just get your idea in motion and if it means you write the most sluggish, boring, wordy beginning, keep going. If it takes six paragraphs to finally get the wheels turning and the story in motion, who cares? Write. Write, write, write. Because you know what?
You can write—or rewrite—the beginning…at the end.
Yes, at the end of the whole process of getting your draft down, you can swing back around to the beginning and edit.
But you can’t go back to the beginning and edit if there’s no draft. So write. Write it all out. Write bad stuff, bad beginnings, miserable middles, clunky conclusions and go back later to fine tune it.
You can cut down that introduction and spruce up that opening line. You can find the one gem that showed up in the second paragraph, third line down, and try that one. Or you might stumble across a quote in a book you finish this weekend and feel it might fit perfectly. Pop it in. Try it. If it doesn’t work, delete it and try starting with story.
Start in the Middle — Write the Beginning Later
Another way you can trick yourself into beginning is to start in the middle. With or without a simple outline, you can actually start writing further into the piece. With fiction, this gets you deeper into the action; with nonfiction, this might have you starting with your first main point. You can write the whole complex middle before you write the beginning—or the end—and add those later.
Nothing Is Wasted
Sometimes I’ve edited articles where the opening paragraph ends up working best toward the end of the introduction or as the conclusion. In other words, if you’re self-editing or you work with an editor and realize the beginning needs to change, your words may find a new home elsewhere.
But even if it ends up on the proverbial cutting room floor, even then it’s not wasted. Why? Because it got you in motion so you could finish your draft. That beginning served a purpose—an important one. It got your idea in motion. Without it, a great piece might never have emerged.
Betsy Lerner says in The Forest for the Trees, “A good editor knows when the three pages at the beginning of a chapter are throat clearing. Start here, she’ll mark in the margin. This is where your story begins.”
That so-called throat clearing may be in the form of a lengthy description, spending a lot of time introducing a character, or writing your way into your subject, theme, or thesis—even giving away your conclusion from the first line. An editor, sometimes even a writing buddy, can spot these things that were hard for us to see ourselves. I think we can learn to edit ourselves, but it’s helpful to invite an objective eye to catch the throat-clearing.
The Daring Edit
One time the founder of Tweetspeak Poetry, L.L. Barkat, worked with author Laura Boggess on the beginning of a novel she was working on. The editing process is detailed over at Tweetspeak, where you can see the entire original and then the edit.
L.L., who has mentored me as an editor, took a five-paragraph, almost 200-word beginning in Laura Boggess’s signature lyrical style and cut it to two sentences—just 13 words.
Why so brief? I believe L.L. wants to hook the reader and get to the heartbeat of what was pulsing through the original.
Elements of the original may find their way into paragraphs deeper in the first chapter; they might not be wasted. But even if they fall to the floor, sliced and unneeded, were they wasted? No. The author needed them to get going on the story, to get her bearings, to see where she’s going with the character who has just appeared on page one.
Go ahead and clear your throat. Do what it takes to get your piece in motion. You need a beginning, so you can get to your ending. You can always swing back around to revisit and revise it at the end.
Click on the podcast player above or use subscription options below to listen to the full episode.
- Survivor: The Editorial Version (L.L. Barkat edits Laura Boggess‘s beginning)
- #44: Why Every Writer Needs a Buddy
- Charity Singleton Craig’s Self-Editing Checklist (pdf)
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