Monday, April 12, 2010

Beginnings: The Embellished and The Tear-Jerker

As a writer, hopefully, you realize how important your beginning is to your story. If you don’t invest time and probably tears (yours not your characters’) into the first few pages, then why should the reader? I’ve talked about beginnings before. Here are a couple more to avoid.

The Embellished: This is when a story, especially a mystery, thriller, or romantic suspense, starts with the discovery of a body or a murderer in the act of killing. Those beginnings can be super, but the rest of the story has to follow the same level of darkness or mystery. The opening shouldn’t be so disturbing that the rest of the story can’t live up to that situation. An over-the-top, sensationalized beginning requires an action-packed, fast-moving story that keeps the reader on edge. Otherwise, the opening will seem contrived and the reader will feel manipulated. This doesn’t mean you can’t have slower scenes to give the reader a breather, but that’s another post.

The Tear-Jerker: This is when a character starts the story off with tears, especially when she “loses it”, and the reader doesn’t know why. The problem with this opening is that, while it may be well-written, the reader doesn’t know the character, what she’s gone through or going through now. There’s no way of evaluating whether the character is justified in her sorrow or being melodramatic. Plus, since the character is still a stranger to the reader, it’s easier to shut the book than take the time and effort to figure out what’s going on. Save this scene and use it once the reader has built a rapport with this character, then the situation will have a stronger impact.

I can’t say I’ve read many published books that started out with either one of these beginnings, but I have read some unpublished work like this. Opening scenes need to be a balance of a hook and set up (and I’m not talking about a backstory dump here). Otherwise, you risk losing the reader.

Have you read stories with either of these beginnings? What’s your favorite kind of opening scene?


  1. I've read a lot of medieval romance that starts with either or both of these. I think it works quite well, but that may be because medieval romance has an inherent sense of danger and loss already that the readers almost expect it.

    Great post!

  2. It's hard to say what my favorite opening is. I've read so many that really worked and so many that didn't. I hate the spend-several-pages-describing-the-character type, though. I want to get right into the action.

  3. I've read a number of blog posts that advise dropping the reader in the middle of the action when a main character is facing a moment of change. However, we run the risk of our reader not caring what happens to the character because she hasn't connected with him/her. Somehow, we have to inject elements that make us care. Challenging? Yes, but powerful when done well.

    I like compelling beginnings that pull me into a story, so that's what I attempted to write. The story I'm working one begins with the heroine in peril, and it's fared quite well on the contest circuit and ended up getting me an offer of representation from my Dream Agent who was one of the final round judges. I've, therefore, become even more convinced that beginning with action is a good thing. I think that's why so many novels and movies do just that.

  4. Not read any like that. I think I like books that offer a little set up before dumping the reader into the thick of it all. As you said, we need to have a grasp on what's happening and a reason to care.

  5. I find beginnings extremely hard, but usually start using a certain trait the character has, which will influence the story later.

  6. I have, and I can particularly relate to the second scenario you gave. Well done!

  7. Well, that's enough about what not to do. My next post will be about great beginnings.

    Lynnette Labelle