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Finding Your Beginning in “The End”: Dreaming of Writing a Perfect Opening

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Or, How NOT to Begin Your Story

Finding Your Beginning in "The End" | KayeDacus.com

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

(Edgerton, Kindle Location 2101)

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

One of the most tempting things for beginning writers—and one thing absolutely certain to flag them as newbies—is to take the instruction to “open with a bang” as permission to generate a hugely intense and captivating opening by throwing the readers into the middle of the character’s dream.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

No!

But why not?

Remember yesterday when we talked about how the trust of the reader is earned or lost in your opening pages? That’s why.

When you open with a dream sequence that the reader knows is a dream sequence (because it’s in italics), there are no real stakes, there’s no genuine tension (because the reader knows it’s not real), and no real risk to the character. It’s not real—so there’s no reason for the reader to care.

If the reader doesn’t know it’s a dream, the reader gets invested in what’s happening, and then the author says, “Nyah, nyah; I fooled you; you’ve been punked; it didn’t really happen,” and the reader throws the book at the wall or, at the very least, is reluctant to believe anything the author says thereafter. It’s a practical joke at the reader’s expense and without the reader’s consent. And that’s not the trusting author-reader relationship we want to build.

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The Impossible Dream

When you open with a dream sequence, you now have two beginnings to your story: one is the dream and the other is (most likely) the dreamer waking up from the dream. And nothing REAL, nothing that matters or invests the reader in the story has happened yet.

The reason newbie writers love starting with dream sequences is so they start the story off with a bang. A dream sequence isn’t a bang—it’s a FALSE BANG.

The dream is usually followed by the character waking up, going through their morning routine. This bores readers to tears.

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Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

Why is the “morning routine” scene so bad?

Because there is no conflict, nothing to get the plot moving.

If your opening is a “wake up” scene,
your character better be waking up to the
world falling apart around him
and immediately jumping into the fray.

Instead, wake-up scenes are usually filled with nothing but internal monologue and/or backstory as the character ruminates about his/her life up until this point or his/her philosophical or metaphysical musings on life in general (newbies believe this is “character building” but all it is, really, is “reader boring”).

    And filling the opening pages with narrative on the backstory of the character means you probably didn’t do enough preparation work before you started writing because you’re using your “opening” to figure out your character’s backstory instead of already knowing it before you started writing.

Don’t let your opening scene get stuck inside your character’s head. The reader will quickly lose interest if nothing is happening. Thoughts, ideas, ruminations, revelations, contemplation—all of these are telling/passive, not showing/active. And we want our writing, especially our openings, to be as active as possible.

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Here Comes Trouble

If stories are always about one thing and one thing only—trouble—then the story shouldn’t really begin at any time other than when the trouble begins. The story simply doesn’t exist before that point.

(Edgerton, Kindle Location 586)

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably never stop saying it in the right situations: your plot should start AT THE BEGINNING of your story. Otherwise, there’s no reason for a reader to be reading your story. Give your readers a reason to turn the page—give them characters and conflicts to invest their interest and time and emotions in. Don’t give them a passive scene full of backstory or philosophizing that doesn’t take the reader anywhere.

Start in the middle of a scene. The Law & Order franchises changed the way in which scenes were structured in police procedurals on TV—instead of showing the detectives arriving at the house of the witness (or suspect), walking up to the door, knocking, being invited in, then sitting down and starting to talk, L&O opened scenes (after the kunk-kunk sound) with the detectives already in the middle of an interview, sometimes already in the middle of a sentence—or with the dialogue coming over the black screen as it faded into the scene. It’s a formula that works, obviously, since it’s the longest running franchise on TV, and most other shows have picked up on this so that it now seems the most natural way for stories to be told on TV.

Try starting with dialogue. Start in the middle of a conflict (that matters to the plot) between the main character and someone else. Start with action. Whatever it is, get the reader involved in what’s going on immediately. Just make sure that it ties into your overall plot and is consistent with the tone and theme of the remainder of the story.

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Your First Date with Your Reader

I always compare the opening chapter(s) to a first date—do you want to go on a first date with someone who is going to spend three hours telling you his entire life story, and then fill you in on what he thinks about the current world situation, religion, the economy, the condition of his skin, the fact his house needs to be cleaned, and that he thinks his car might be due for an oil change?

No. Part of the thrill of beginning a relationship (even a friendship) is that you get to spend time getting to know the other person a little bit at a time. And what you do get to know fastest is who that person is now—how they interact with you, how they treat others around them, whether or not they show up early or late, how they handle rude people, how they treat service people at restaurants or movie theaters, whether or not they spend the entire time texting or answering their phone every time it rings. Do you have to know where they were born, went to school, and what they studied to learn who a person is right now and whether or not you want to spend more time with them?

To ensure you have more than one “date” with your reader, you must make sure that your beginning ties in with and sets up your ending. Remember, your opening scene is nothing more than a promise of what’s to come throughout the rest of the story. So make it as beguiling and intriguing as possible.

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Tomorrow: Making Your Readers an Offer They Can’t Refuse

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Works Cited:

Edgerton, Les. Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. Kindle Edition.

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