Friday, September 23, 2011

The Draw of an Awesome Beginning

We've talked about first sentences and first pages, but I want to talk a little about the content of those beginnings. Not just first pages, but entire beginnings.

As a writer, I obsess over my beginnings, writing and rewriting them.  They're never perfect. And I really, really want them to be.

As a reader, sorry to say, I have unrealistically high expectations. 

Miraculously, a few books have exceeded those expectations, so I want to talk about books whose first several pages just drew me in and have stuck with me, maybe forever:

Wither by Lauren DeStefano
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Across the Universe by Beth Revis
The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Wither: Begins with a traumatic experience, painted with beautiful, tortured words. Sets up a bizarre counter-reality wherein our heroine is part of a vulnerable class of people. Introduces the evil forces in the world with specific, heart-rending detail. Introduces ambiguous characters that make us wonder. Introduces compassionate characters who give us hope.

If I Stay: Begins with the hint that something awful has happened and goes back to the morning before the accident so we can get to know the family we're about to mourn. Idyllic, then crushing. Gritty, raw, and real but at the same time sets a mood of confusion and immense loss.

Across the Universe: Begins with a girl saying goodbye to her parents as they are cryogenically frozen. Introduces the main character as a young girl struggling between allegiance to her family and a desire for her own life. Her conflict is real and touching, and she has a devastating decision to make. Again, gritty, raw, and believable.

The Maze Runner: Begins with a boy waking up in a strange, dark, small space with no specific memory except one thing: his first name. That right there, drew me in completely. The strange world he wakes up in, the other boys who speak strangely and about strange things, the holes in his knowledge as he tries to piece together what they're talking about, where he is, and who he is. The mystery unravels slowly and expertly.

If it sounds like my voice is filled with awe, it is. These authors have achieved something incredible in my eyes. They didn't just start with action, like common wisdom says. They started with substance. Emotion. The high stakes. The universal fear that will drive their story.

I'm far from being able to emulate them, but it's something to aspire to.

Here are a few ways writers lose me with their beginnings:

  • Starting with an ordinary day. (Exceptions are if that ordinary day is entertaining, like a quirky best friend or a lesser conflict introduced before the big one [e.g. getting detention or losing a job].) p.s. I think starting with a dream or waking up is perfectly fine if there's a purpose for it. And in paranormal or fantasy, which I read heavily, there often is.
  • Inserting back-story that doesn't answer my present, burning questions about the story. Sometimes a writer will begin with something really riveting and then draw my attention away to something that doesn't feel absolutely necessary. I hate that. It makes me feel tricked and I just want to get back to what's going on. In If I Stay, Gayle Forman starts with something riveting and then backs up to show us how she got there. This is totally fine. I'm talking about the scenes that begin one way and then pause for a page to talk about life philosophy or something totally unrelated to the conflict at hand.
  • Using a cliche. The beginning (the whole thing) is where you want to put your most original stuff. Later, if you want to be a little predictable, I'll totally forgive you because I'm already in love with your characters and concept.
  • Going on and on about minutia. A well-chosen detail is a magical thing: roots us in the setting, gives insight into your MC's soul. But when you tell me every little detail when the situation doesn't call for it (example of the sitch calling for it: Bella as new vampire), I actually yawn. And then my husband yawns. And if my kids are awake, they yawn, too. It's contagious.
  • All action all the time! I think some people take the admonition to start with action too literally. They make their first page read like an action movie when the rest of it is not thriller material. Often, they sacrifice the reader's connection to the character for the sake of shocking and exciting them. The books I listed above stole my heart because they introduced the character in a heartbreaking, confusing, torturing circumstance. But above all, they introduced the character. 
  • Confusing the heck out of me. If I can't figure out what's going on within a page, I lose interest. Mystery is good. James Dashner did this expertly in The Maze Runner. But if I feel like you're being elusive on purpose and for no reason, I get annoyed. ;) I bet you're the same way as a reader.
What are some of your favorite examples of draw-you-in, break-your-heart, make-you-keep-reading beginnings? Why? What kept you reading past that clever first line?

On my own blog next Tuesday, as part of the awesome Blog Chain topic started by Sean David Hutchinson, I'll be writing about beginnings that did not draw me in, but books that ultimately did. As much as I love a good beginning, there's a special place in my heart for the books that grew on me over time. 

Amparo wrote on this topic today at her blog, so check that out if you're looking to fall in love slowly. :)


Angela Ackerman said...

Brilliant post and great examples. :)

Another thing that loses me is openings that start with a character feeling sorry for themselves.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Oh yeah, Angela! That loses me, too, which is so ironic, because I tend to write beginnings with pity-party characters. Must stop that. ;)

Becky Mahoney said...

Beginnings are just so tricky, especially with the various mixed messages we writers get online! Some people have very rigid ideas in their mind about What Beginnings Should Be, and I think that's partially why so many beginnings I see on crit boards don't properly ground the reader first. I include my own original opening in that equation: that was one of the major changes suggested in my editorial letter.

Great post, Katrina! I totally agree with you on your beginning pet peeves, and you chose some fabulous examples.

Becky Mahoney said...

Also, SO MUCH YES re: pity party characters. That's something I'm trying my hardest to avoid, too. There's nothing that turns a reader off like unnecessary angst.

Theresa Milstein said...

I've read 2 of your 4. I agree about Across the Universe. I've read over 80 books this year, and of them, very few have made me go, WOW. But the ones I have, I think about all the time.

lexcade said...

I remember when Lisa and Laura Roecker did their Bookanista post on Across the Universe and said that the first chapter was the best they'd ever read. Made me wish I could start with chapter 2 ;)

Seriously, though, first 5 pages are make or break for a novel. It's hard to write the perfect one...

Becca Puglisi said...

Great breakdown! I love the point about not starting on an ordinary day. Another no-no for me is when the character plunges directly into a page full of internal dialogue. I want to experience life along with the character, not eavesdrop on her therapy session. Bleh.

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Theresa, 80 books! Holy Hannah! I'd be interested to see a bar graph of your responses. :)

lexcade, I think AtU might just be the best beginning I've ever read, too. It's that epic.

Becca, and yet that therapy session is SO tempting to put in as a writer. They're all over my first drafts.

Jessica Silva said...

TOTALLY agree with you about how to lose me as a reader. I haven't read any of those books, but I can see some common threads in what I have read and which of those stories really drew me in from page one :D Great post.

Melodie Wright said...

Maze Runner does have a great beginning! Ship Breaker has one as well - talk about seamless world building/back story.
Love your list. Makes me vow to go back to the books I disliked to pick apart why.

Jack LaBloom said...

Great information for writers. My decision to buy a book is usually made within the first page.

One of my favorite opening lines in a mystery was in the late James Crumley's THE LAST GOOD KISS.

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

When I read that line, I knew I wanted to read that book.

Kristin Lenz said...

I just went to a conference where an author talked about beginning a story with "something different happening on an ordinary day."

Shiver hooked me on the first page. I had no intention of reading a werewolf story, but I was sucked right in!