As someone who does a lot of creative writing, the most challenging part of beginning a project for me is exactly that–the beginning. Every writing class or other form of instruction I’ve received has time and time again stressed the importance of having a strong start. I always had my suspicions that they were right, and they were only confirmed as I matured as a writer. You can’t have a story without the beginning, so the beginning is arguably the most vital piece of the machine, right? It’s where, as a writer, you are at your freest to write openly and experiment. But why do we have trouble with the part we’re able to flex our creativity to its fullest extent?
I’m not the only writer who struggles with beginnings. Numerous other writers I’ve talked to, from fellow writing arts students to published and established authors, have cited the start of their work as the most challenging part. I myself have rewritten the beginning of my passion project, a science fiction novel, twice in the few months I’ve been working on it.
So why on earth are they so difficult to write?
Maybe there’s just something inherently challenging about writing a sound start for a story. Personally, I find it difficult because my inspiration usually doesn’t start with a clear beginning in mind. I think of premises first. The details and nuances of a setting or characters are what comes to my mind first, and I can figure out how they mesh with one another later. Everyone’s mind works differently, but the task of putting your very best foot forward seems universally challenging to writers.
In an attempt to breakthrough and finally begin a project, one might wonder if there’s some kind of trick or technique to writing a particularly strong start. Any writer with a drive to improve tries to optimize their own writing by figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Maybe there’s a set formula that you can plug thoughts and ideas into and extract an objectively sound opening that establishes character, continuity, and setting all at the same time?
Well since writing doesn’t work like math, a neat and tidy formula like this will never be possible. It’s actually a lot simpler, because a beginning only truly needs to do one thing; compel the reader. A beginning is there to draw the reader into whatever concept or idea you, the writer, have hooked them on. Even prolific authors would struggle to fit the entire continuity and premise in the first chapter of their story. A successful beginning is one that makes the reader want to continue reading.
I say this as though it’s some obvious solution to make all your writing problems disappear. This isn’t to say that you don’t need a thorough understanding of your own world; you absolutely do. Creating something compelling is a challenge of its own. What lessens this challenge, however, is the variety of methods you can use to compel your audience. My goal here is to highlight a few of those methods and outline some ways you can get your audience to keep turning the pages of your writing. While I’ll generally be referring to these methods in the context of fiction, they’re very much applicable to other forms of creative writing.
A good ol’ fashioned prologue
“Prologue” is a very general term to describe an event or series of events that occurs before the start of a story. What events those were and when they happened is something you decide, but regardless of those choices there are some clear benefits from using a prologue.
A prologue can show an important event that gives the reader some needed context to understand the world, or show an event with consequences that echo over the course of the story. It might show how a character got into the situation they find themselves in at the beginning of the story proper. A prologue could also be something that happened to make the world the way it is now, and by doing that ease the reader into the potential uniqueness of your story.
Regardless of what, how, or when, a prologue wastes no time. It establishes key details and makes it clear who or what is important and, chiefly, why. Your reader doesn’t want to wait, so why should you? An effective prologue is one whose purpose the reader understands and understands quickly. Therefore, there are some questions that should be asked before settling on beginning your story with a prologue.
Is it necessary? Do the beginning events need contextualizing for the story to work the way you want it to? If the events in the prologue would be covered more effectively in a flashback or through later exposition, you may want to consider another option. Going over something obvious or something that could be better contextualized later in the prologue could bog down your opening, and a more direct start to the story could preserve a speedier and engaging pace.
Begin with important memories
If you want to use a prologue but don’t have any idea of an event that would justify using it, consider beginning with some of your protagonist’s crucial memories. This could mean a significant memory they have or it could be a more direct flashback. Either way, there’s a lot that can be gained by immediately showing a very revealing part of your character.
Showing a crucial moment can add to the reader’s investment in your protagonist. A critical memory can show many things about your main character. It could show something responsible for their motivations and what they value. It could also display an incident that shaped the way they view the world. These critical details can show the guts of your character and give the reader a chance to walk a mile in their shoes. Remember that a likable character is often one a reader can understand or relate to, so these details should be stressed in this opening. If done well, an opening like this will create a compelling reason in the form of your protagonist for the reader to keep reading.
That being said, this type of beginning’s effectiveness is heavily dependent on your protagonist as a character. An unengaging protagonist will make an opening like this fall flat. It might be beneficial to ask yourself before writing this if you have a clear idea for your protagonist, and if their memories would be able to contribute to the narrative on their own. A beginning like this requires acting on that vague yet true advice given by every writing instructor under the sun; show, don’t tell.
The other challenge this opening presents is what exactly your protagonist is recalling. Going back to being revealing, ask yourself does this memory show a lot about them? Make sure the event is actually noteworthy enough to become the opening of your story. If this sounds similar to the hurdle faced when writing a prologue, that’s because it’s not a coincidence. Many aspects that make for a strong prologue work here as well if the right moment is chosen. A moment that features a highly emotional experience or a difficult choice can strongly reveal the deepest facets of how a character acts, and can immediately present your reader with a compelling main character they’ll have reasons to root for.
Starting in the middle
Beginning a story in the midst of the action, or in media res, is my personal favorite way to begin a story, and arguably the most effective when it comes to engaging a reader quickly. This can mean starting during a high-octane situation that demands immediate action, or it could mean beginning with the plot already underway. The universal example of this I see people refer to is Lord of the Flies, where the opening lines describe the boys stranded on a beach after their plane crashed. However you wish to go about opening this way, the strength of starting in media res is how it uses suspense to immediately draw the reader into your writing.
With nothing to go on but what’s given in the first sentences, your reader will want to keep reading for answers; shoot first, ask questions later. A sudden situation with a gap in knowledge creates tension. This type of beginning also sets up momentum for the story and prevents it from being slow, which I think is the worst thing an opening could possibly be.
Measures still have to be taken in order to write an engaging opening in the middle of your story. Resist the temptation to over-explain what’s going on. If the reader receives crucial information that could easily explain what’s happening before it’s done happening, they likely won’t be as engaged. The lack of knowledge is what drives this kind of opening, and providing too much description or context can take away its most important function. It can also work against the opening in a technical sense, since exposition or explanation in your writing can detract from the action and break up tension you’ve worked to create.
Secondly, the action has to distract the reader enough to wait for character introductions. Other openings would have the characters somewhat explained, perhaps enough to justify the actions taken in the beginning, but starting in media res forgoes this in exchange for a more sudden start. So if the action at the beginning relies on an understanding of the characters, special care should be taken to introduce that context in a way that doesn’t interfere with the initial pacing. By choosing the right moment, one where the action flows and there are plenty of questions to be asked, you can set up a beginning that could leave your reader enthralled and curious enough to keep reading.
Creating a solid beginning of a story in essence only requires you to be able to grab your reader’s attention, but that challenge on its own is what many writers stumble over. More than half the time it boils down to creating the right circumstances that will allow your writing to become compelling. Hopefully what I’ve written here will help other writers have the confidence to tackle the start of something they may be stumped on. After all, the only place you can start is at the very beginning.