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Crafting the Killer Beginning -- by John Berkowitz



You may not know my name or recognize me as an accomplished author. Nevertheless I write this, I think, with a certain amount of authority. Not a great amount, to be sure, but some amount. I have, after all, written quite a number of novel beginnings.

Just the one novel, of course. But a lot of beginnings.

In fact, I have written two complete novels, and started more than that number. But the first novel I actually finished (many years ago, before I had studied the mysteries of “plot”) had one of the most clichéd beginnings known to Man – the exciting action sequence that turns out to be the end of a story being told by the main character. This is a less common variation of the ever-popular flashback/dream-sequence school of beginnings. I doubled down on that oh-so-clever beginning by ending the novel with the main character starting to tell that same story the novel began with. Because book-ends are cool.

But even before I had finished that book I knew it was not commercially viable. It was too long for a first-time author; no agent would have touched it. It was also not very good. The recent novel I co-wrote with my daughter, on the other hand, is commercially viable (we hope), and because we had every intention of getting this in front of as many agent’s as necessary, the beginning was something we devoted a lot of attention to.

What many unpublished writers do not know is that their entire novel is going to be judged based on just the first three chapters, or one chapter. Or 250 words. That 250 words thing really snuck up on us. As novices we believed three chapters was the standard for agent submissions; as long as we got to our inciting incident by the end of chapter three, we were golden. But a lot of agents specify a much shorter amount of your manuscript to include when you query. Plus agents often read through dozens or even hundreds (!) of queries in a given day, and if yours doesn’t stand out right away, it gets passed over. Busy agents will never make it to the end of three chapters if they aren’t hooked in the first five pages. Or one page.

That’s where the 250 words comes in. That is considered to be roughly your first page. Never mind if it isn’t. This magic number comes up again and again in writing and querying circles. As I have discussed at length here in the past, Twitter is a fantastic resource for querying authors, because that is where you will hear about most of the regular pitching contests, which ultimately serve the purpose of helping you polish your pitch – including your first 250. While some of these competitions are for the prize of being considered by an agent, many of them are for a chance to be mentored or critiqued by fellow writers. Some are both.

One contest – Pitch It Forward – was specifically for critiques, and the winners were all posted where other participants and fellow winners could comment. This is a great opportunity to see what your fellow writers are doing, and see what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s what I’ve learned about killer beginnings:

• Establish your main character
• Establish your setting
• Establish your voice
• Establish your conflict
• Make a promise to the reader (which you must fulfill before the end)
• Make the reader want to know what happens in the next 250 words – and the next 2,500 words.

What do I mean by making a promise? Every story promises (or should promise) to thrill you, or frighten you, or make you laugh. It may promise to reveal the secret history of the world, or what life is like in space or as a superhero or as a vampire. You want to make that promise (those promises) In the first 250 words.

You have, no doubt, heard a number of rules that you “must” follow:
• Always start with action
• Show, don’t tell
• No info-dumps

You will already have favorite books you can cite that break some or all of these rules. So do I. Don’t count on getting away with it. But these rules are subjective. Action doesn’t necessarily mean a car chase or a zombie with an ax. It could be news that a loved-one died, or some small thing that changes everything. It is something that hooks the reader and draws them into your story. Talking about your character or their situation rarely does that. Not never, but rarely. These three points are really all saying the same thing.

There are cliche’s to avoid:
• Don’t start with dialogue
• Don’t start in the middle of a battle
• Don’t describe your character by having them look in a mirror
• Don’t start in a dream or a flashback

The problem with dialogue and battle openings are really the same thing. With dialogue you don’t know who is speaking and you can’t properly “hear” the speaker’s voice until you describe them. With a battle, you don’t know why the people are fighting or what’s at stake, so you don’t care. The other two are just overdone and unoriginal. You can break all of these rules, but you must be exceptionally clever or original about it to make it work.

But all of these rules and guidelines and suggestions only work if you know where your book is going and what is it about. If ultimately your book is about, say, “being true to yourself,” you should make that case right up front. This can be subtle foreshadowing or a blunt declaration, but it needs to be there in one form or another. If you can’t put your finger on what that is, you might want to step back from your novel and take some time to nail it down.

The most common mistake new writers make on first novels is starting in the wrong place. If your beginning doesn’t or can’t do what I’ve outlined above you might want to see if you’re starting in the wrong place.

To be sure, you probably don’t need to get every one of these concepts into the first 250 words of your novel, but they should be in place in the first three pages, or about 1,000 words. Then polish those words and make sure every comma in place and every word is the precise one you want to use. And avail yourself of the many, many free opportunities on Twitter to have your beginning looked at by editors and agents and fellow writers who are willing to help you make it even better.

Posted by John Berkowitz 11 May 2015 at 01:05
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Responses to this blog

Wmufunde 12 May 2015 at 01:56  
I understand the problem about starting a novel in the middle of a battle. Is the same true of a chase scene? I have a serial that starts this way but the story is in non-chronological order so I could afford to shift things around if need be. Any tips?
Thanks for the article.
Demonqueen 12 May 2015 at 13:28  
Can I also please add something to that list? Don't start mid-scene in a prickly predicament and then after the one small paragraph transition into a lengthy flashback.

Also, any links to those Twitter opportunities would be handy, Harry.
Sheridan 13 May 2015 at 00:34  
Nice snapshot advice on improving openings, Harry.

I've seen quite a few rushed opening paragraphs lately. The author zips out one line after the next, chock-full of info and/or action, with no 'glue' in between, or room for a reader's brain to breath and absorb the info coming at them. One could say those openings check all the 'must have' boxes, but they still aren't working because the flow is off.
Jberkowitz 13 May 2015 at 18:29  
Er ... who's Harry?

The opportunities to get feedback on your query and first 250 come and go pretty quickly. My recommendation is to follow:

Also, these offers tend to pop up right before and during these contests. For a list of upcoming contests (and how to follow them on Twitter), look here.

Also look into this Facebook group, Pitch Critique.
Aukgwriter 13 May 2015 at 18:36  
Good advice. This sort of killed an idea I was thinking about, where I'd open the story with the protagonist taking a breather, mid-battle, to pause in deep thought. She'd reflect on her life, questioning why she is where she is and not where she wants to be. It's an opening I thought would give the reader an immediate sense of what the setting is and what the setting could be further into the book, since those two locations are very different.

As Demonqueen suggested, a link to any Twitter opportunities would be great!

Thanks for the post, it helped!
Roseofg 14 May 2015 at 22:31  
Great post. I appreciated a detailed list of what to be evaluating the strength of your opening with.
Auntymin 15 May 2015 at 14:06  
Thank you for the Twitter info. The info in this thread is definitely going to help as I am starting my second book. I'm still struggling with this structural limitation on my first. How did William Goldman (Princess Bride) get away with bookends, the introduction of the story teller, his audience, and then finally get into the story? Or does that only happen in the screenplay, I don't have the book.

Any advice on folklore would be appreciated. I had the first two chapters of my novel up for review on CC and only two of six critters understood the format. I did a 250 word crit of the book at a SCBWI workshop and everyone was lost. The intro of the storyteller seems critical to asking the question that drives the tale, it could never be asked from within the tale. Please send me a DM if you have any suggestions.
Susieq 15 May 2015 at 23:25  
I have to disagree with you statement that you shouldn't open with dialog. It's not right for every story, but when it's done well it's quite effective. Some very successful writers have done it: Stephen King (Christine and Desperation), George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones), and Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game) just to name a few.
Duhaylonso 26 May 2015 at 16:28  
?Crafting the Killer Beginning? was an interesting as well as informative blog. As a newspaper reporter writing a book for the first time, I find the blog to be useful in my writing. Hopefully, I?ll be able to remember everything in your blog as I continue on my journey.

Thank you, John Berkowitz, for writing your blog.

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