Whether you are beginning a magazine article, a short story, or a book, the beginning must be superb. A reader’s interest is captured within the first three pages of a novel. If the author has lost her interest in those first three pages, the reader will, most likely, not continue reading.
1. The length of every beginning is relative to the length of the whole piece. A short story that contains a thousand words might have a beginning of 250 words or less. An article for a magazine would have just a paragraph. A lengthy novel might have half a chapter that serves as a beginning.
2. A beginning snags the reader by its interest. Lure the reader into your work with your enchanting beginning. Write for the highest interest possible.
3. What comprises a high-interest beginning?
a. A vivid description of a character or setting. Think about local color, especially if your characters are folksy or belong to a particular cultural or community group, such as the Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch. For setting: the Alpine region, a rainforest, a beach, a desert, a jungle, an everyday living room wherein something or someone unique is planning, devising, beginning some kind of master plan. And describe the setting using all of the senses: sight, hearing, smelling, touching.
b. Action/adventure “in media res.” Put the reader right into the middle of a murder, a rescue, thoughts about suicide, an event of some kind, such as a wedding, a funeral, a telephone call with urgent news. Make your action immediate and so interesting the reader will be unable to resist putting down your story.
c. Avoid philosophical thinking, analysis, passive thought, monotonous dwelling on an issue, lecturing, proselytizing of any kind. Avoid any issues that are inherently boring or that would annoy a reader.
d. Above all: be real. Use real, every day language. If using verbiage of a particular group, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, write with some dialect to the conversations. Narrative paragraphs should sound way different from spoken words. Even particular people within a book may speak differently and use particular accents or expressions. Incorporate dialect, accents, and habits of speech into a character’s direct quotes.
Avoiding cursing just for its own sake will make your work sound hollow and unreal. People in dire and dangerous situations swear, and there’s never a good way for good writers to get around this. Saying “Gosh!” when it’s more believable to say “God!” is fake and phony. Never be a phony with your reader, or you will lose her. Don’t sugar-coat words like the “F” word—just say them when appropriate and when no other word will do. Sometimes beginnings, because they are intense, focused, action-packed, will need some cussing.
Coming next week: How to build a believable character.