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. :)