When you meet someone, you shake hands with them. That’s nothing, just a small gesture, a routine, and yet from that nothing you invariably begin to draw a series of tentative conclusions about the people you’ve just met.
This is normal and happens all the time. In fact, in real life you have at your disposal many different cues that can help you determine who the people you have just met and shaken hands with are.
For example, their grip was too strong, or maybe too weak. They hesitated an instant too long before accepting your offered hand. Or maybe they stared into your eyes with a tinge of defiance you didn’t like. You know what I mean.
It’s Only Words
Instead, in a book there are no such cues. In a book there’s nothing but the action described.
For example: Flanagan shook hands with Melanie.
You can stare at those five words all the time you want, but there’s no way for you to get to know about how strong a grip Flanagan has. Or whether or not Melanie stared at him defiantly.
This seems all so banal. Yet many authors tend to forget about this self-evident truth exactly when they should keep it in mind the most: during beginnings.
In fact, beginnings are par excellence among the most difficult parts of a book. This is so for some simple reasons.
First of all, your readers know nothing about the story yet. They don’t know any characters and they don’t know anything about the setting either. So, if you begin your story with a slew of cryptic pages, the chances for your potential readers to keep on reading slide down to an icy zero—I’m referring to the absolute zero, the one at minus 273 Celsius degrees. When not even a single atom is able to move about.
Just have a look at this invented example:
“He didn’t have any real spools, but he went to the Machitron all the same. In his pocket his fingers fidgeted with the dozen bixes he had stolen from Martin. They were degenerating fast. He had to find a buyer before they were completely unusable.”
Here we have a beginning in media res (in the middle of things, or action) and some serious use of terms your readers know nothing about.
Also beginnings in media res are quite difficult to handle well, but I’m going to write about them on another occasion. Here I want to focus my attention on word choice.
Sure, this paragraph could persuade your readers to read on for some more pages. Maybe. But as soon as possible, as a writer you should stop and take your time to give your readers some bearings.
And this doesn’t mean adding the dreaded info dump.
How to Avoid Info Dumps
For example, you could simply avoid using the word spools, whose meaning here has been invented, and use instead loot–word no reader would have to pause to decipher.
This simple word is also useful because if you go around with some loot, chances are you’re something of a bad person. Besides, when your readers come across the other word, steal, there’s no longer any doubt about the moral standing of the man they are reading about.
Sure, with spools you aimed at world building, at an atmosphere of otherness, but doing so you also unwittingly created roadblocks for your readers. With the plain old loot you temporarily abandon world building in favor of characterization and smoothness.
I don’t know about you, but as a reader I would always choose the latter option. That’s basically the reason I can’t stand hard SF, where often the story crawls at a snail’s pace just to build a world whose innumerable features are rarely used to move the story forward.
Another possible improvement in the above exemplified beginning would be turning, “he went to the Machitron all the same” into, “he went to the Machitron, the biggest market of the city, all the same.”
Once readers know the Machitron is some sort of market, you can show them some peculiar details of it. In this way they will more easily grasp the differences with respect to the kind of markets they are used to.
Just with this couple of changes you no longer would force your readers to metaphorically juggle a dozen different clubs right from the get go.
You could argue that you wrote the first paragraph in that way to have your readers experience the bewilderment of the place and culture you’re depicting.
And that idea is fine, in theory. But given you’re telling a story, it’s way better if the story takes precedence over every other aspect.
The sparing use of unknown terms and obscure cultural references offers also an interesting result. In fact, now the only word whose meaning is still unclear, bixes, is bound to attract all your reader’s attention.
And that’s good, because bixes are… let’s see… nano-devices highly unstable at room temperature. Devices that, before they degenerate, can be used to create wormholes always pointing to a designated place. In short, they offer a (dangerous) escape route to whoever may be in need of fleeing.
As it is often the case it’s a matter of degree. A single mysterious word or object makes readers curious. Instead, a bazaar full of exotic and quirky stuff ends up repelling most of them.
Some Other Kinds of Weaknesses
Beginnings can also be written in perfectly understandable English and yet be as confusing and disorienting as a book choking with jargon.
To start with, they could present readers with too many characters all at once. That kind of beginning is extremely difficult to pull off, for the same reasons a beginning choking with jargon is.
Readers need time to let a fictional character take residence in their heads. It’s like when you go to a party and meet a lot of new people. The day after, you have to struggle just to remember a handful of names. Those of the people you instinctively liked most. But again, in a book you have only the written words. So writers have to invest words to make a character real to their readers.
If you have a dozen characters populating your beginning this means either you’re going to describe them too briefly to offer your readers any chance to really zero in on them, or you’re going to write a mammoth book… Well… there are also other possibilities, but none of them is any better than the two I just touched upon.
Having many characters all appearing from the get go could also make it difficult to make it clear who the main protagonist is.
Besides, if there is just one true protagonist why do you think you have to show so many other characters at the beginning? Maybe you should rethink the opening of your story.
Another type of beginning I can’t stand is where readers are forced to follow the protagonist while she goes about her everyday activities for pages and pages.
Forcing readers to wait for the story to start is boring. If there isn’t a story there’s no reason to write, from a fictional point of view. Unless you want to write meta-fiction and experiment with all sorts of techniques.
Similarly, from a reader’s point of view the ultimate truth is that if there isn’t a story there’s no need to tell anything at all.
Anton Chekhov said it well. As a writer, enter the story as late as possible, and then leave it as early as possible too. In short, aim at extreme economy. He is long dead but his advice is as vital today as it was in his time. So stick to it.
Also keeping the readers in the dark for something like one hundred pages isn’t any good.
Sure, as the author you might think it’s fun, but only because you already know what is going to happen and when. Strip that knowledge from your mind (it’s pretty difficult to do so, and that’s why they call it the curse of knowledge, but you’re an author for God’s sake, so you should be able to exert a bit of imagination, shouldn’t you?) and look at your work again and you’ll see what I mean.
Really there’s nothing fun in keeping your readers in the dark about the story. So, keep it simple and tell the story. Don’t try to hide it.
Beginnings, They’re Easy… Easy to Mess Up
Put a wastebasket a couple of yards from where you are. Then crumple up a sheet of paper and throw it into the basket. Chances are that even if your aim was three or four degrees wrong the ball of paper still fell into the basket.
Instead, if a rocket aimed to the moon were to be launched with an error of four degrees, in the most optimistic scenario it would miss the moon by a margin of thousands and thousands of miles.
A novel is like that rocket. It has to cover a very long distance. So every word you write at the beginning is terribly important. In fact, if you make a minuscule mistake here that mistake is bound to multiply in the subsequent pages.
That’s why, in general beginnings are the last place to choose to try new techniques, to write meta literature, and on and on.
Of course, this might sound a bit dogmatic. And it probably is. But to show how good you are at telling your story, at the very least you should make sure your readers have an idea of what it is they’re reading.
Only then you can show off, after long and careful consideration, how good you are. And that usually means you decide against showing off at all and keep telling the damn story instead.
In fact readers have at their disposal only the words written by the author. So it’s imperative for those words to make a lot of sense and flow as smoothly as possible. To prevent readers from ever stopping to ask questions. You know, like what the hell does it all mean?
With this I’m not saying beginnings must be shrunk down to microscopic dimensions and made as simple to use as a toilet — provided it’s not one of those contraptions NASA came up with for those lucky astronauts having to deal with a zero-gravity environment. What I’m saying is that the sooner you let your readers know about the kind of story they are about to read and the sooner they can decide whether to follow you or not.
And this is good. Because those who follow you are bound to end up finding your story a worthy one. And those who decide your story isn’t for them will have nothing to say about wasting their time with something that ultimately didn’t cater to their tastes.