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, paragraph, and 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, too, 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.

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

Let’s clarify. What is the “beginning” of a story? 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 can get away with it. Other authors? Not so much.

An article, short story, or novel should start in a place that does more than launch the reader into the story. 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 this 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.

Oh, by the way, a beginning has to identify key characters and their problems, too. Readers care about characters, after all, far more than things or actions.

Writers talk about the “inciting incident,” the event that starts a story’s characters on their journey. Is that the right place to start? Not necessarily. Let me give you an example: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. 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 “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. [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, to learn the story of Ethan Frome, even though the long preface makes it clear it’s going to be terrible.

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.

Here are some questions that should help you decide.

  • Does this beginning take me beyond the hook? Does it amplify and deepen my curiosity about 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 (background information or events that happened earlier) or tangential material that could or should come later? These are common mistakes.
  • 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, on 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—I’ve tried over half a dozen different ones my own novel-in-progress!—but it’s vital and that makes your job as a reviewer that much more important.

What do you look for when determining whether an article, short story, or novel is starting in the right place?

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