You liked it. I loved it. And here I’m giving it to you again.
This time around, I’ll be highlighting the beginnings of three more of my stories, providing commentary about why they were good, and why they weren’t as good as they could have been. I won’t go too much into the types of beginnings there are or the processes used to get there–you can read back a few posts in my “Writing” category for all that–so this time around, it’s all pro-tip facts and critical fiction.
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From “Concerto in Spe et Somnis“:
Alessandro faced the mirror. Rich, ebony curls framed his face, his flesh a fresh olive tone nearer to divinity than to daily doings. He smiled, grinned, flexed his lips in all manners of purses and pouts until he was certain all was perfect. He leaned back from the porcelain sink hung to the poorly tiled wall and frowned; right on his baby blue silk shirt, where it had touched the side of the sink, was a small wet blotch. He flicked it uselessly. Then he smudged his thumb across it in an attempt to dry the stain, but in effect only made it more noticeable.
His pout deepened a notch, and then a notch more as he stared, and almost one more notch before the door burst open and he flashed his most dashing smile and bared his moon-white teeth to the passerby who took no notice of him walked his way to the stall.
Alessandro just glared at the empty space left behind.
First on our list is setting, and it seems we’re in some sort of bathroom (suggested by the references to the sink and the stall and the mirror), although a time is not quite implied. Next, we want to introduce our character: In this example, Alessandro is perhaps introduced too much–and our first impression doesn’t seem too positive. Third, we want to “hook” the reader with some indication of the story’s conflict: Toward the end of this excerpt, we’re starting to notice that Alessandro is not as well received in the eyes of others as he is to himself, implying the story will revolve around this internal conflict. Finally, we should suggest a general tone to the reader: Although it’s loose enough to suggest many possible paths, it seems to suggest most prominently a more literary, character-focused story.
That’s four of four checks–but is this beginning as good as gold?
Take a moment to think…reread the passage…not enough can be said about rereading…it really does open your eyes to all the nuances, all the subtleties, both the good and the bad…
Do you still think it’s as good as gold?
Alessandro flicked at the wet splotch on his baby blue silk shirt. He bared his teeth as his efforts to remove the stain only made it more noticeable. Just then, the door to the bathroom burst open–his heart shook and he glanced up at the mirror. For a moment, all he saw was his own reflection: Rich, ebony curls framing his face, his flesh a fresh olive tone that shone like a god. And his smile, his dashing smile–who could resist?
He flashed a passing glance at the newcomer, certain he’d have to fend off an autograph in this most-awkward situation with a water stain on his shirt, but the passerby just kept walking past him into one of the stalls along the other wall.
Alessandro’s lips parted and he stared dumbstruck at the space the stranger left behind.
In this version, I’ve sacrificed a touch of the literary tone for a bit more of a modern approach. Instead of flooding the page with character, I’ve attempted to put the conflict closer to the start. Yes, the “conflict” is only the stain on his shirt, but it serves as a segue into the more important focus: The apparent disparity between Alessandro’s self-image and how others receive him. I’ve also added details to more quickly build the bathroom scene in the reader’s mind and rearranged some of the descriptions to shift the weight of them accordingly (things at the beginning and end tend to be in more powerful spots).
Pro Tip: Ask yourself if it’s more important to lead with the character or the conflict. Both options can create a good opening, but knowing which will serve the story better will help you make your editing decisions. If your character is likeable or easy to relate to, consider starting with the character first, but if your character seems unlikeable at first, try starting with the conflict to draw your readers into the story without having your characters turn them off.
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From “In Another Castle“:
I forged forward, pushing through the thicket with my sword at my side. The thorns scratched against my arm as twigs and leaves crunched beneath my feet. Coupled with the sounds of crows and crickets from behind me, I was sick in my stomach.
For all the water surrounding the island, this dead hill rising out of the endless swamp, I couldn’t believe all the plants here were lifeless, dry to the core. I stared up through the branches as I ducked under a thicker branch I couldn’t easily push aside and saw the gray sky. I wondered if it ever rained or if the clouds were always distant and dry.
We’re on an island. Going through a thicket. And there’s water around us. The narrator…is going on an adventure? Male or female? Dead or alive? The conflict…is absent, unless it has something to do with this lifelessness we’re witnessing? Finally, the genre seems to suggest–very minimally–something post-apocalyptic or maybe, very maybe, something fantastical.
In context, the story taken as a whole works, but when we’re editing beginnings, can we rely upon the context of the story? The simplest answer comes in the form of another question: When you start reading a book, are you reading the beginning in the context of the entire story? Absolutely not! (Unless you’re rereading a book, but chances are, if you’re doing that, you liked the beginning enough the first time to read the whole thing anyways.)
Therefore, vague beginnings, though acceptable, are not always the smartest idea. Well-known authors can get away with them, so can bloggers on occasion, but the publishing industry may not be so forgiving.
The thorns scratched against my arms as I forged forward, pushing through the thicket as the branches banged against my armor. I kept my sword sheathed; so far, though cumbersome, the path was bearable. Beneath my feet, twigs and leaves crunched under the weight of my iron boots. Crows and crickets echoed around me, the only music in this desolate void. Their song made me sick.
For all the water surrounding this island, a dead hill rising out of the endless swamp, I found myself scouring, I couldn’t believe the plants here were all dry to the core. I stared up through the lifeless trees as I ducked under a thicker branch I couldn’t easily push aside and finally I saw the gray sky. I wondered if it ever rained in this part of the world or if the clouds were always distant and dry.
This time I’ve made two major changes: I’ve clarified the sentence structure and added details to help the reader visualize the character. A sword and armor, with iron boots? It’s not a bad assumption to assume this character, likely male, is a knight–this clears up the genre confusion as well. Knights are purely fantasy elements, so this story must be fantastical. I’ve also made a more subtle change by saying this knight has found himself “scouring” this swamp; “scouring” implies a search, and if he’s here in search of something, it suggests a deeper conflict floating just beneath the surface. Although the conflict is still somewhat vague in the opening, these changes have provided a more rounded start to the story.
Pro Tip: Start with an action. Action lines instantly conjure an image for readers, allowing them to plunge forward into the story even if all the elements of an ideal opening aren’t present. However, an action cannot be the only thing going for your beginning since an action alone won’t be able to support it. Round it out by establishing your setting, character, and genre or tone, and then the opening action can instantly make your readers salivate for more.
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From “Highway Unicorn“:
Putting the pedal to the metal was an understatement, Sarah thought, but it didn’t do her much good with how far she’d gotten before her crimson ’67 Chevy Impala had come to a stop. The car had been her beauty throughout her last two years of high school and all six years of college before finishing her Master’s in Anthropology, but now it was nothing more than a smoking mess on the side of an asphalt road in the middle of nowhere.
From the very first line, we’re given a character–Sarah–and it seems with each new word, another element is added: We’ve got conflict in the broken-down car, setting in the middle of nowhere, and a contemporary genre implied in the realistic details of the evolving scenario. It captures every required element of the ideal beginning–but do you think it works as well as I feel it does?
With this one, I’m not going to offer any alternatives–instead, I’m going to ask YOU what should be done to improve it. There’s no need to rewrite it, but tell me what you think it needs (or doesn’t need) in the comments. After all, most of what I learned about writing didn’t come from writing–it came from critiquing what others had written. Only by analyzing stories as a reader was I able to gain this insight as a writer.