Crafting the Killer Beginning

Posted: April 1, 2015 in Writing
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You may not know my name or recognize me as an accomplished author. Nevertheless I write this, I think, with a certain amount of authority. Not a great amount, to be sure, but some amount. I have, after all, written quite a number of novel beginnings.

Just the one novel, of course. But a lot of beginnings.

In fact, I have written two complete novels, and started more than that number. But the first novel I actually finished (many years ago, before I had studied the mysteries of “plot”) had one of the most clichéd beginnings known to Man – the exciting action sequence that turns out to be the end of a story being told by the main character. This is a less common variation of the ever-popular flashback/dream-sequence school of beginnings. I doubled down on that oh-so-clever beginning by ending the novel with the main character starting to tell that same story the novel began with. Because book-ends are cool.

But even before I had finished that book I knew it was not commercially viable. It was too long for a first-time author; no agent would have touched it. It was also not very good. The recent novel I co-wrote with my daughter, on the other hand, is commercially viable (we hope), and because we had every intention of getting this in front of as many agent’s as necessary, the beginning was something we devoted a lot of attention to.

What many unpublished writers do not know is that their entire novel is going to be judged based on just the first three chapters, or one chapter. Or 250 words. That 250 words thing really snuck up on us. As novices we believed three chapters was the standard for agent submissions; as long as we got to our inciting incident by the end of chapter three, we were golden. But a lot of agents specify a much shorter amount of your manuscript to include when you query. Plus agents often read through dozens or even hundreds (!) of queries in a given day, and if yours doesn’t stand out right away, it gets passed over. Busy agents will never make it to the end of three chapters if they aren’t hooked in the first five pages. Or one page.

That’s where the 250 words comes in. That is considered to be roughly your first page. Never mind if it isn’t. This magic number comes up again and again in writing and querying circles. As I have discussed at length here in the past, Twitter is a fantastic resource for querying authors, because that is where you will hear about most of the regular pitching contests, which ultimately serve the purpose of helping you polish your pitch – including your first 250. While some of these competitions are for the prize of being considered by an agent, many of them are for a chance to be mentored or critiqued by fellow writers. Some are both.

One contest – Pitch It Forward – was specifically for critiques, and the winners were all posted where other participants and fellow winners could comment. This is a great opportunity to see what your fellow writers are doing, and see what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s what I’ve learned about killer beginnings:

• Establish your main character
• Establish your setting
• Establish your voice
• Establish your conflict
• Make a promise to the reader (which you must fulfill before the end)
• Make the reader want to know what happens in the next 250 words – and the next 2,500 words.

What do I mean by making a promise? Every story promises (or should promise) to thrill you, or frighten you, or make you laugh. It may promise to reveal the secret history of the world, or what life is like in space or as a superhero or as a vampire. You want to make that promise (those promises) In the first 250 words.

You have, no doubt, heard a number of rules that you “must” follow:
• Always start with action
• Show, don’t tell
• No info-dumps

You will already have favorite books you can cite that break some or all of these rules. So do I. Don’t count on getting away with it. But these rules are subjective. Action doesn’t necessarily mean a car chase or a zombie with an ax. It could be news that a loved-one died, or some small thing that changes everything. It is something that hooks the reader and draws them into your story. Talking about your character or their situation rarely does that. Not never, but rarely. These three points are really all saying the same thing.

There are cliche’s to avoid:
• Don’t start with dialogue
• Don’t start in the middle of a battle
• Don’t describe your character by having them look in a mirror
• Don’t start in a dream or a flashback

The problem with dialogue and battle openings are really the same thing. With dialogue you don’t know who is speaking and you can’t properly “hear” the speaker’s voice until you describe them. With a battle, you don’t know why the people are fighting or what’s at stake, so you don’t care. The other two are just overdone and unoriginal. You can break all of these rules, but you must be exceptionally clever or original about it to make it work.

But all of these rules and guidelines and suggestions only work if you know where your book is going and what is it about. If ultimately your book is about, say, “being true to yourself,” you should make that case right up front. This can be subtle foreshadowing or a blunt declaration, but it needs to be there in one form or another. If you can’t put your finger on what that is, you might want to step back from your novel and take some time to nail it down.

The most common mistake new writers make on first novels is starting in the wrong place. If your beginning doesn’t or can’t do what I’ve outlined above you might want to see if you’re starting in the wrong place.

To be sure, you probably don’t need to get every one of these concepts into the first 250 words of your novel, but they should be in place in the first three pages, or about 1,000 words. Then polish those words and make sure every comma in place and every word is the precise one you want to use. And avail yourself of the many, many free opportunities on Twitter to have your beginning looked at by editors and agents and fellow writers who are willing to help you make it even better.

  1. “To be sure, you probably don’t need to get every one of these concepts into the first 250 words of your novel, but they should be in place in the first three pages, or about 1,000 words.”

    I was just going to say, “Wow, that’s a lot to ask every book to cram all of that info into its first 250 words, because some don’t need to…”

    But with that caveat, totally agree. By page 3, you’ve had plenty of time to lay out the key stuff after you hooked them in the first 250. Great post! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jan Ferrierr says:

    G.R.R.Martin starts with the discovering of wolves and we follow the Starks and their wolves to new and different places. This is the hook that hooks you into his books like the hook in a song that makes it so. Easy to remember and sing so quickly. Yet wilbur Smith paints beautiful landscapes as does D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Who is to say which is the right way to go. I love all the styles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very true, Jan. However literary agents who are looking for clients to represent have a completely different set of priorities than the average reader. Strange and possibly unfair, but nevertheless true.


  3. wrstoffel says:

    I’m learning that, when writing, there are few rules that can’t be broken on occasion. I have a completed manuscript in which the first chapter starts with dialogue. That had been suggested to me in my critiquing group and I think it makes total sense for this particular story.
    I believe it was Elmore Leonard who gave a list of 10 “rules” of writing but with a qualification: they were useful unless one was successful while ignoring them.

    John, I found your article informative.


  4. […] the genre right up front. All of the things I talked about a few weeks ago when I posted Crafting the Killer Beginning. Want a […]


  5. […] All of this is meant to convey the fact that I am having some difficulty finding the balance between moving forward and looking backwards. Plus, I want that killer beginning. […]


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