Writing Excuses Episode 4: Beginnings
starring Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells
Beginnings are tough.
How do you know where to start?
- Start with a joke that has no setup, and then noodle over to the meat of the piece
Most writers don’t know where to start
- in late, out early: start and end as close to the action as possible
- most of us write ourselves into stories, but that’s not where the reader wants to start
- when you have the conversation about “let’s define our relationship,” it may take two hours. But the readers don’t want the set up or the aftermath.
How important are first lines?
- Very important. Our first lines define everything. In writing we talk about the promises you make that must be fulfilled later in the book. The first promise you make is your first line.
- Often, a book starts from the first line.
- First lines need to catch our attention and set our expectations.
We talk about hooks
- The first line is not just a promise. It’s also a sales pitch. Very often readers pick up a book in a bookstore and read that first line, then decide whether or not to buy the book.
- We talked about mixing the mundane and the original. A line like, “it all began when I woke up in my coffin” has both of those.
- This is one kind of hook
I worry that beginning writers often focus too much on trying to write the perfect first line.
- Your first line does not have to be the first line you write.
- You don’t have to have a quickie, snappy line. It’s more important to establish a promise then to make someone laugh or punch them in the face
- Sometimes the first line establishes mood. Fantasy and science fiction often have an establishing shot.
- Although you probably want to start with conflict or motion. Conflict showing something going wrong or motion showing going somewhere new.
- A line of dialogue that starts an argument is a great way to start your story
What about mistakes in first lines or beginnings?
- Take a look at Tolkien: the first line of the hobbit is great, but the rest of the chapter kind of drops. We wouldn’t write about a dinner party now.
- One big mistake is trying to establish the whole world first.
- Start with a powerful image — not the history of the world
- Look at the structure of a James Bond movie. The basic arc sets up a problem, deals with it, and eventually solves it. But they usually add a stunt, an action scene, tacked on the front.
- Be careful about false promises — hooks that don’t live up to the rest of the book (I think he meant books that don’t live up to the hooks – Mike)
- If your book has a comic element, there better be some humor in the rest of the book
- I think I’ve already said everything, so I think I’ll just quote some of the finest words I have ever read (at this point, the others started humming) No, it’s not mine, it’s the beginning of Neuromancer. It doesn’t do setting, character, or conflict, but it shows you that this is going to be of a certain style.
- Don’t try to write your first line first. Write lots of interesting dialogue, cool scenes, establishing shots, and somewhere along the way something will jump out that says this is where your beginning is.
- Plan to cut your first chapter. You may replace it, or you may find that you don’t even need it, but plan to cut your first chapter.
The short form: don’t try to write your first line first. Do make sure that your first line makes a promise that the rest of your book fulfills. Get to character and conflict fast.
Current Mood: working
Current Music: Stay, Sugarland