The Ugly Truth About Beginnings

Perhaps we should start at the beginning…

As this is my first “notes’ post, I thought it only appropriate to begin with beginnings.  What will grab a reader/editor/agent and make them crave more? The following notes are author Maralys Willis’ thoughts on the subject.

The Ugly Truth About Beginnings

Caution! Your beginning may become an ending! According to Willis, editors and agents will only read the first page or two of your manuscript. Unless you grab your reader on the first line, hold him on the second line, and fascinate him on the third line, those few words may be all he’ll ever read. A slow paced beginning, doesn’t honor well for the rest of the book. Beginnings are the hardest, the most crucial part of writing anything – book, story, or article. Most of us – even accomplished writers – re-work our beginnings over and over, anywhere from five to ten times.

Due to the invention of the photocopier, we are now in the days of multiple-submissions. Editors (literally) find themselves with rooms brimming with towers of manuscripts. They only have time for a page or two before something else demands their attention. In order to get an agent/editor’s attention (and keep it) you need to raise story questions within the first few paragraphs. This can be done through attitude,  an opinion, or emotional bias; surprise your reader, or hint at tragedy. Theses techniques will keep the reader engaged. For Example:

Attitude: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.

Hint of Tragedy: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973.

Surprise: Unknown Romance Novel

From the waist down he looked promising.

Willis also suggests starting the book with a moment of high drama, or a moment of great change – one that will change a character’s life. Hook your audience! The audience doesn’t need to know a character’s back story, all they need are the facts relevant to the scene they are in. Back story can be sprinkled in later. Create a moment of drama that forces the reader to ask: “How did the character get here?” Or “What lead to this?”

But, why put a character in peril if we don’t know them yet? Can the audience really connect with them? To this argument, Willis asks if you look at accidents on the side of the road. Are we not immediately interested, even though we don’t know the people in the accident? We naturally want to know if our fellow human-being is okay. We want to know what happened. That same intrigue can be used in the opening of a book.

You must also orient the reader. Somewhere in the first few paragraphs, the reader must learn the five W’s: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. The inclusion of the five W’s will anchor the reader. It will allow him/her to become part of the scene, to feel as if he/she is actually “living” it. Of course, the five W’s should not be laid out one after the other, but incorporated subtly into the story.

To Sum Up – Seven Things New Writers Seldom Realize about Beginnings:

1) Your book can’t afford to “warm up” – with description, dull sentences, or back story. It must start with a Hook.

2) You can’t wait for chapter three “when the story gets good!” If the story get’s good in chapter three, make it chapter one.

3) Good beginnings always include a problem – or conflict.

4) The problem in the beginning means the character’s lives are about to change – radically.

5) Most editors and agents read only the first page of a submission. If it’s not compelling on the first page, they imagine the rest won’t be worth reading.

6) Half the readers never read a prologue. So why include one?

7) No amount of work is too much to create a great first page.

Maralys Willis is the author of twelve books and memoirs including Higher Than Eagles, a  poignant memoir about her son’s tragic hang gliding accident. She is also a college-level teacher of creative writing and novel writing, and her most recent book is the acclaimed “How To” book on writing novels entitled: Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead!

This seminar was presented on March 20th, 2010 by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC). Learn more about IWOSC events and membership at:

6 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth About Beginnings

  1. Hi Ingrid,
    I received a link to your blog via a Google Alert on IWOSC. Your blog is terrific, as is your other one with recipes. Your enthusiasm and creativity and generous spirit are so apparent! Good luck with all your endeavors.
    I’m sure Maralys Wills will be delighted as well to see that you took notes on her IWOSC seminar and then blogged about it.
    Flo Selfman
    PR Consultant
    President, IWOSC

  2. Beginnings are tough and it’s truly a craft to nail them just right–that’s why they say so many writers write the middle or ending first.

    Great article–I look forward to more!! I can see this blog is going to be like a free conference–love it!

  3. Pingback: Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead! « Ingrid's Notes

  4. Pingback: Ten Ways to Upgrade Your Manuscript (Part One) « Ingrid's Notes

  5. Pingback: Ten Ways to Upgrade Your Manuscript (Part Two) « Ingrid's Notes

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