When We Begin

The first paragraphs of a short story, or the first pages of a novel, have a task to perform. In fact, to my mind they have three tasks.

The first one is what Connie Willis gives as the first thing to do when you’re time traveling–and after all, aren’t you time traveling when you write? Ascertain your space-time location. This is a little less important if you’re writing in the present, modern-day world, because that will be the reader’s primary assumption unless you tell him different (assuming he’s living in the same country as the writer). But it’s still good to give some indication, as simple as a cell phone or a car going by. If you’ve built your own world, or are writing in the past or the future, you need to give some hint of certain factors. If the setting is our own world, what time period are we in? If not our own world, what technology level are we dealing with?

This does not, by any means, indicate that you should dump a huge pile of setting-related information onto the reader in the first few paragraphs. The setting can be sketched in a few glimpses, integrated into other sentences, not necessarily sentences of their own.

The second task (these are in no particular order of importance or chronology) is to introduce a character. In a short story, it should be the main character, in most cases, as you haven’t much room to mess around. In a novel, it needn’t be, but we do need to be interested in this character, or we won’t continue to read. We need to know something about the character, outside and/or inside.

The third task is to give us something to pull us onward, into the book. A hook, it can be called. For the most part, this means handing the character some kind of problem or anxiety or passion that needs resolution. This doesn’t have to be the main problem he’s going to face in the story (though in a short story there may not be time for much side-problem resolution) but it needs to engage us. It needn’t be a world-shaking difficulty, either; if you’ve drawn your character well, what happened to their missing dog might engage us just as much as whether they can prevent an alien invasion.

This seems like a lot to ask of a few paragraphs or pages. But if you look at the opening bits of your favorite stories and novels, I think you’ll find that they perform these tasks, for the most part.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Daniel
    Jun 25, 2008 @ 09:56:48

    Good, informative post. You’re right, my favorite books all do this at the beginning. Double checking my own writing to make sure I get it done. http://www.bentpage.wordpress.com.

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