The Bad Beginning (On Writing: The Dreaded Opening Chapter)

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

–  Arthur Ashe

 

Have you ever tried to explain a good book to someone by saying, “The first chapter is terrible, but the rest are amazing”?

That’s a serious question; I’m not sure of my own answer. There are probably a handful of yes’s, and I can tell you for sure that if you tried to explain the state of my manuscript to someone, you would assure them that the beginning is utter trash by comparison to the rest of the story.

When I started hammering out the first draft back in 2009, I began the process by staring at the computer screen for a good ten minutes. Then, after sitting there thinking as hard as I could, I realized that I couldn’t come up with a good beginning to my story. So I just skipped the opening altogether and wrote the start of a fresh scene, which is now chapter five. Eventually I came up with a loose opening sequence, but I still wasn’t happy with it.

Over the years, I’ve re-written the first chapter probably five or six times.

And I’m not just talking about switching up dialogue or the order of events or anything. I’m talking about going from “sucked into a vortex inside an attic” to “kidnapped by sorcerers on the way home from school,” to “being carried down the aisle in a coffin,” all at different points in the main character’s life. All different tries at one stupid little chapter.

And—almost six re-writes and four years later—I’M STILL UNHAPPY WITH IT.

So I was really hoping I’m not the only writer with this problem.

Maybe it’s just because my novel is a YA fantasy, but for the life of me, I can’t come up with a first chapter that satisfactorily begins it. No matter what I try, I always bump into some cliché or another. My hope has been that if I try enough opening scenarios, I’ll simply run out of clichés to use eventually.

But no, I’m still coming up blank. And I’ve just finished the final re-write of the first draft. That sounds a bit backwards; I know. What it means is that I have the story in place and a lot of editing to do.

Before I start said editing, however, I need to find a good way to kick off the story. And no matter what events I run through my mind to launch it, I just can’t think of one that really grabs peoples’ interests. Nothing unique.

The reason I’m writing this post is because all of this talk of novel openings got me thinking of first chapters in general, of published, popular books. Good ones are supposed to pull you in, so you can’t stop reading, right?

But as I thought of this, I realized that not every good book I’ve read has that kind of kickoff. One example that comes to mind is The Hunger Games. The entire opening chapter is simply character setup, with Katniss running through the woods with Gale and getting ready for the reaping. It’s only the end of the chapter that starts the suspense, and to be perfectly honest, the only reason I read to that point is because my friends recommended it.

And I’m glad I did. The rest of the story was good, and I think that’s the point. “High concept” books, as they’re called, have a tiny bit of leeway in terms of gripping the reader right from the first page versus the first few chapters. But if you’re writing a book like mine, which draws its strength from its characters and their development, it can be killer to write an opening that keeps the audience interested enough to enjoy the full benefit of the story.

  

Unfortunately, that’s the end of my thoughts on this topic. I don’t have any brilliant solutions to this infernal problem, other than hoping for a spark of inspiration or a sudden epiphany. No, I can’t solve this problem; I just felt like ranting about it for a little while. If I’ve wasted your time, I’m very sorry. But hopefully I’m not the only one who has this problem, and hopefully that spark of inspiration will hit me.

Sooner rather than later would be nice.

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