On May 20, 2012, Jillian wrote, I always like stories that aren't slow and get going quickly. But now I look back at my story and am thinking, It's going too quickly. I have had my friends read it and they understand the beginning completely. I even have backstory in there but it's just very quick. Is there such a thing as too quick a beginning?
I wasn’t sure I understood, so I asked for clarification, and Jillian answered with this: Continuing my last comment, I guess it moves quickly in that I feel like most beginnings have parts where the narrator takes its time in explaining what's going on. Like in Ella Enchanted in the beginning she talks a lot about her mom to give backstory. But in my story I give backstory, but it’s slipped in here and there, and the events move quickly one after the other, making a very short exposition. Is there such a thing as too short?
Hard to tell. My favorite writing teacher used to say that a story, and this would go for a beginning too, is the right length if it’s as long as it needs to be.
Let’s consider what the beginning is, because that may be part of the confusion. In Ella Enchanted, to take Jillian’s example, is the beginning those first two paragraphs about the fool of a fairy, Lucinda? Or the first few pages, in which the curse of obedience is explained? Or does the beginning continue through the funeral of Ella’s mother?
I’m not a student of story arcs and rising and falling action, although maybe I’d have an easier time if I were. So I’m not sure. If the beginning is just revealing the curse, very few pages are involved. If it includes Ella’s mother’s death, then it’s two chapters.
Maybe it will be more productive to think about what a beginning needs to do. I mean a final beginning, not the beginning that gets us writers into the story, but the beginning after we’ve reached the end of the entire tale and done all the revising.
First of all and most of all, a beginning needs to engage the reader and make her care enough to keep reading. There’s no such thing as too quick for that. I don’t mean that there has to be a crisis on the first page. Some authors are leisurely about drawing the reader in. It’s gradual. But there has to be enough from the start to intrigue. Why are we examining the wallpaper in an ordinary bedroom? What’s going on? That curiosity may be enough.
Everything else pales in comparison with the imperative to make the reader want to read.
A beginning also acquaints the reader with the world of the story, which is different for every book or every series. Two books set in a contemporary suburb, for example, will still be in different worlds. The characters will differ, their families, their friends. One character is home schooled; another attends an enormous high school. One character likes to buy from thrift shops, another favors big box stores. One lives in a condo subdivision, another in an old house that was built by her great-grandfather. And so on. Both may mention the antique clock tower by the train station, where the trains no longer run, but that’s it.
Familiarity with the world may take a while if POV or time period or setting shifts from chapter to chapter. The reader may be four chapters in before she feels completely at home. In the novel I’m reading right now, Adam & Eve by Sena Jeter Naslund (high school and above), all three change. Some sections are told in first-person, others in third. Time and setting move around too. I have to pay attention! But the story is strong enough to keep me interested.
The beginning also introduces the voice of the story, or voices if the POV shifts, and if it does, the beginning will also be prolonged.
There’s nothing wrong with either approach, consistency or variation. The same voice, same time period, same narrator all the way through are absolutely fine. They’re just likely to shorten the beginning.
Some stories require more set-up than others. If there are aspects of the world that the reader needs to know going in, we’re going to have to spend more time getting started, which is neither virtue nor vice, only a little harder, because while we’re doing the set-up we still have to engage the reader.
We can make the reader care about main character Kira right on the first page. She rescues a puppy then gets hit by a bus and then says something endearing to the EMT who’s loading her on a stretcher.
But we don’t have to. We can lead with the wallpaper. There’s a spot where it’s torn, and the tear is in the shape of a crescent moon. The surface of the dresser is dusty, and in the dust someone has drawn a five-pointed star. The area rug has a pattern of suns. So far the reader has seen only setting, but she's curious. Why all the celestial symbols?
The thing that would make a beginning feel rushed to me is an absence of detail. If we start with the rescued puppy, the reader will want to know the circumstances. Is the puppy being abused? Or is it alone in a cardboard box on the street? Did whoever left it also leave a few dog biscuits and a toy? How cute or un-cute is the puppy? And then there’s Kira. Does she love dogs? Is she afraid of them? Allergic? Does she have time to pick up the puppy, or is she making herself late for an interview for the internship she’s wanted for five years?
In the wallpaper example, I’ve given a few details but the reader will certainly want to know if anyone is in the house. And what’s the smell? Is there silence? Is the electricity working, the water running?
Without detail the reader can’t enter the story.
Let’s try some prompts.
∙ Now I’m curious. Write the beginning of the puppy story. If you like, keep going.
∙ Write the beginning of the wallpaper story. What is going on in that house? Delay the entry of characters for as long as you can while still maintaining the reader’s interest. Continue and make it a story.
∙ In a new version, combine the puppy story and the wallpaper story. Switch settings and POVs and time frames. The EMT, the puppy, the rescuer can all have their own chapter. The house with the wallpaper can come much earlier or much later.
Have fun, and save what you write!