Wednesday, 25 August 2010

But Where to Begin?

Authors, you have all know many different ways of starting a novel. I don't mean the process (outlining/just writing) I mean the place where the story actually starts. There are lots of options, some of them are:

A) In the middle of the action
B) Right before a planned adventure (which probably goes awry)
C)In every day life, before an unexpected problem shows up
D) In the middle of a long-standing problem

But what do these look like?
Well, to help show us, let's look over at Legend of Zelda, shall we? (hehe!)

But first, in case you've missed them -
LoZ Post 2 - Just Add Swagger

A) Starting in the Middle of the Action
Game: Majora's Mask

Majora's Mask begins with the same Link that was in Ocarina of Time, but for some reason, he didn't live happily ever after. He went off to explore new lands.
We come into the middle of his story right at the beginning of gameplay - which happens to be when he walks into the middle of someone else's story. This beginning has about ten seconds of calm before exploding into trouble - Link gets turned into a Deku creature, his horse is stolen, and he gets stuck with an annoying fairy who was one of the trio that stole his horse.

I won't go into the details (even though I really REALLY want to cause it's an awesome game, way more in depth than some of the others) but here's the basic gist: Link has three days to keep the moon from crashing into Termina Field and to defeat an imp possesed by Majora, an extremely powerful creature. The action starts right away, and the player has to find out the imp's backstory before he can successfully defeat Majora.

PROS of having your book start in the middle of the action:
The pacing carries itself pretty far
It can be fascinating
The reader gets to discover more in-depth information about the character quicker

It can be confusing
Often requires backstory/flashbacks
The author needs to be able to make the reader care in much less time

B) Right Before a Planned Adventure (which probably goes awry)
Game: Twilight Princess

In Twilight Princess, Link is the youngest 'adult' in a quiet village. In the beginning scene, we see an older adult ask him to ride into the capital city and deliver a sword to the royal family. He's never been to Hyrule City before, it's the biggest event in his life so far.


Just before he's about to leave, monsters attack the village and kidnap all the children, along with Link's possible love-interest. Now Link has to go to Hyrule City - and every other part of the world - searching for them, using the sword intended for the royal family.

An exciting twist fairly early in the story can intrigue readers
You can still have a 'before' and 'after' picture that readers can sympathize with
There's more room for characterization

It's easy to be corny
It's easy to be predictable
It's east to be unbelievable
(So take care!)

C) In Every Day Life, Before the Problem Shows Up
Game: Wind Waker

Wind Waker begins with Link being woken up by his little sister, Aryll. She pokes him and tells him it's his birthday, and Grandma has a present for him. So off he goes, talking to villagers on the way, giving an extended taste of the day to day life in his world. Since he's turning the age of the 'hero' of olden times, he has to wear these funky green clothes for the day. He kind of has an attitude about it (wouldn't you?) but does it anyway. But then a pirate ship visits the island (no, they don't kill anyone or anything, they're NICE pirates!) and a giant bird kidnaps Aryll, and Link's adventure starts.

The power here is that we care about Aryll being kidnapped - we know who she is. It's easy to shrug off 'it's just the sister', but it's harder to ignore, 'Oh, that's the little girl who woke me up with a big smile and offered to let me use her prized telescope for the day'.

Much more time for characterization
The tone can be set effectively
Readers can settle into a comfortable mood, making them easier to shock/sadden/horrify/scare

It can be hard to get the story moving
The conflict may come across as weak
The ending may be weak as well (things may just get back to how they were)

D)In the Middle of a Long-Standing Problem
Game: Ocarina of Time

Note: this problem doesn't have to be the main problem of the story.
Ocarina of Time starts with little Link, living in Kokiri Forest under the Great Deku Tree. Link is a normal Kokiri, except for one thing - he doesn't have a fairy. All the other Kokiri do. The game opens with a messenger fairy coming to tell Link he has to go see the Great Deku Tree, and gameplay begins. Over time, we realize that Link doesn't have a fairy because (GASP) he's NOT Kokiri, he's Hylian. But Navi the messenger fairy ends up going around with him anyway, on her last assignment from the Deku Tree.
This is different than starting with every day life because, though the problem has become every-day, there's more story involved. There's less chance of having a slow beginning, because the reader has an instant reason to feel sorry for the character.

There's already conflict in the beginning
It's also easy to see every-day life
Leaves room for a more dramatic ending

The reader might feel only pity for the character, and that's rarely enough to keep them reading
Real problems can be understated
Sympathetic minor characters are harder to work in

What are some other ways of starting books? Have you ever felt yourself falling into some of the 'cons' of the above ways? What are your favorite book beginnings?


Summer Ross said...

This was a good post, I might reference it later...LOL love that you used Zelda

Zoe C. Courtman said...

Great post. The biggest thing I learned about how I write beginnings is that the beginning I start the draft with is almost never the beginning that truly starts the book when I'm done. I usually find the true beginning somewhere near the end of the book - since the end shapes that beginning.

Elana Johnson said...

I love how you've broken this down. I don't even THINK about stuff like this! I just start, and if it "feels right" I keep it. If it doesn't, I grope for a new beginning.

I can tell I'm going to be thinking much more now.

Marsha Sigman said...

I think I always start with a random event that shows characterization and then I try to tie it in to my main conflict.

But it's so messy at first and takes a lot of revision and cut cut cutting. Did I stutter? So hard to cut.

Sangu said...

I'm not a big Zelda fan, but I love how you've used it here to illustrate different openings. Great post!

Lydia Kang said...

Wow, I love how you outlined all these beginnings. Really well done, I need to bookmark this especially since I'm freaking out about Chapter 1, as you saw...

Christina Lee said...

Wow what a break-down! I am usually a C person, which yes, has it's cons!

Slushpile Slut said...

Wow Bethany! Who knew The Legend of ZElda could be applied to writing? This is brilliant but you know you're going to cause me to get hooked on playing Zelda again?!

And I'm still unsure of my book's beginning but I think I'm leaning towards the onset of the action.

Talli Roland said...

Wow, what a great insight into your thought process here! I like starting with action.

Creepy Query Girl said...

I've had to go through a lot of false starts in order to find the right one and the hard part is that with the whole first 250 word critiques and contests, its one of those things that I constantly second guess. I feel i've come to terms with it now and definitely prefer a 'middle of the action' beginning. Great breakdown!

Lisa said...

Such a big help! I like beginnings, but I don't always start in the right place.

Missed Periods said...

I was just thinking about this the other day. There's a new HBO show with Laura Linney called The Big C (I think that's what it's called). And when the show begins, she already knows she has cancer, which I wasn't expecting. But, I liked that it started- would it be in the middle of the action or in the middle of a long-standing problem.

Clara said...

I start my book in the middle of the action and all pros and cons you said apply 100%!
Its really hard!

Jen said...

Anyone who uses Zelda as a guide rocks my socks off! Seriously!!! I love it!!!

I always start my book at the beginning you know a twist within the first chapter and that keeps you going all throughout. I think gradually all my ideas change but they always start the same!