Critique Technique, Part 6: The Wrong Beginning

Last time I wrote about how the beginning of a piece is supposed to “hook” the reader, to make them have to keep reading past the first line, the first paragraph, the first page. Now we need to zoom out a little and look at the beginning of the piece as a whole. Specifically, we need to ask, “Is this the right place for the piece to begin?”

That may seem like an odd question: doesn’t an article, short story, or novel start at the beginning?

Not necessarily. You’ve probably heard that a story needs to start in medias res, a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.”

Great. What things?

Things. You know. The action. The events. Which may, of course, be internal to one of the characters, or external.

But when there are things, action, events all through a story, which ones should the story start in the middle of?

What Is the Beginning?

What is the “beginning” of a story? Let me be more specific. What is the right beginning of a book? That’s a subtle but critical distinction. From this point on I’m going to focus on longer works: novellas, novelettes, and full-length books. Articles and short stories tend to be short enough that there’s less question about exactly where they should start. Not no question, however, so what I’ll discuss here can still apply.

The problem is, every action, every event that’s part of the story had something happen before it. Lots of somethings, actually. And at least one of those somethings might constitute the beginning. Except that something else happened before it. By this logic, the author would have to go back to the beginning of the universe to find the “real” beginning. That’s not going to work. Well, James Michener could get away with it. Other authors? Not so much.

As I mentioned last time, new writers tend to want to start with a lot of background information on the characters and their situation. Somewhere in all of that may well be where the story starts, but it’s not where the book should start.

The beginning of the book has to launch the reader as well as the characters into the piece, even if the events that led to the start of the story happened much earlier. That information, called backstory, can and should be salted into the book later.

The beginning includes the hook, but it’s more than the hook. The hook is about writing technique; finding the right beginning is about the craft of storytelling. It’s possible to create a hook for a beginning that isn’t the right one. In that case the hook will launch the reader into the piece, only to have her lose interest as the text wanders off into the proverbial woods and gets itself lost.

The beginning introduces the reader to all or most of the major characters—the protagonist and antagonist for sure, but also key secondary characters—and gives the reader an immediate reason to care about them and their predicament. This is more than just the inciting incident and surface problem of the hook. It’s also the relationships among the key characters, the stakes created by the inciting incident and the surface problem, and the characters’ first response to that problem.

Example: Ethan Frome

Is the “inciting incident” the right place for the book to start? Usually yes, but not necessarily. Let me give you an example—Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome—that seems to contradict what I just wrote, and in so doing illustrates, if not proves, it.

Ethan and Zeena Frome, desperately poor New England farmers agree, despite their poverty, to take in Zeena’s young cousin Mattie Silver to care for the supposedly sickly Zeena. This agreement is the inciting incident. Mattie is young, beautiful, and vibrant, everything Zeena is not, and Ethan falls in love with her. Zeena notices and sends her away. [Here’s a spoiler alert, if you haven’t read the story.] In a last desperate moment together, Ethan and Mattie go sledding and crash into a tree, forcing Zeena to rise from her sickbed to care for the badly hurt Mattie.

So, does the novel begin with Ethan and Zeena deciding to take Mattie in? No, it starts with a “frame” in which an unnamed narrator sees the badly crippled, post-accident Ethan, “a ruin of a man,” stagger into the town post office to get his mail. In this extreme case, the novel starts after the story has ended! Why? What was Wharton doing?

Creating curiosity. Creating the need to know more, to read further—hooking the reader, in other words—to learn the story of Ethan Frome, even though the long preface makes it clear it’s going to come to a terrible end. Frame stories are a kind of special case but they can illustrate beautifully the difference between where a book can start and where the story started.

Fine. So now you’re the reviewer of someone’s work. How can you tell if they’ve chosen the right—or at least a successful—beginning? It’s easier with an article or short story because you’re likely to have the entire piece in front of you. With a novel, it can be harder, especially if you don’t have the whole manuscript. In this case, you’ll want to wait until you’ve seen more of the book—maybe all of it—before you come to a conclusion.

And if you’re the author, it’s vital for you to understand that until you have the whole first draft done, you will not really know where the book should start. You will learn things about your story and your characters in the process of writing that first draft that may well cause you to completely replace the beginning you originally wrote. If you do, you will hardly be the first, but your book will be better for it. After I decided I had the wrong beginning for my own first novel, I tried ten other ones; number ten was the right one.

Review Questions You Can Use

Here are some questions that can help you decide if the author has selected the right or wrong beginning.

  • Does this beginning take me beyond the hook? Does it amplify and deepen my curiosity about the characters and the story that follows?
  • Does this beginning identify the story’s key characters, their problems, and how significant those problems are? Does it give me a reason to care?
  • Does this beginning consist of action or activities that pull me along? (Note that, as I wrote about the hook, action doesn’t have to be slam-bang shoot-‘em-up stuff. It can be, like Wharton’s, quiet dialog in which the action is psychological, not physical.)
  • Does this beginning focus on the core story, or does it consist of, or wander off into, backstory or tangential material that should come later?
  • Are there other places in the story that would meet these criteria better? If so, what makes them better choices?
  • If nothing in the piece seems right for a beginning, what’s missing? What do you want or need to know to get interested in the characters and their story?

The beginning is a crucial moment in the relationship between the reader and the story. The wrong beginning, or an ineffective one, will let the reader off the hook (pun fully intended), let her put the book down or flip to the next article or story. Selecting the right place to start isn’t easy but it’s vital and that makes your job as a reviewer that much more important.

Your Thoughts

What do you look for when determining whether an article, short story, or novel is starting in the right place? Add your thoughts and suggestions in the Comments box below.

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