Beginnings

Currently I’m in yet another “final” round of revision on my “Pen” story, and I’ve been having a terrible fight trying to arrive at a beginning that’s good enough to satisfy me. So I’ve been rereading Nancy Kress‘s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, and listening to discussions of beginnings on Writing Excuses and The Writing Show. Between them all the things that rang most true for me are:

  • The hook should combine familiar and original.
  • You want an identifiable point of view
  • at least two characters
  • a situation with conflict
  • strong, interesting presentation

But how do I know all this advice makes sense?

I decided to look closely at the opening paragraphs of some of the stories that I’ve recently liked a lot to see whether these principles are there. So, in no particular order, I picked:

Incongruity (Familiar combined with original) tends to be funny.

  • An electric toothbrush that talks
  • A sentient reef (and rowboat)
  • Edward (ther) Bear is sent on a quest (takes about a page to set up)
  • Three dogs in clothes

Point of view:

  • first person narrator brushing his teeth
  • a rowboat (!) (takes a few paragraphs to establish that it’s sentient)
  • Edward Bear
  • Lorraine

Conflict:

  • The toothbrush wants to be a milk frother; the owner resists the change
  • The reef wants the row-boat to f– off and die.
  • Edward has to overcome obstacles on his quest (this one takes a while to establish)
  • Lorraine thinks the dogs will cause trouble.

Number of Characters:

  • 2
  • 2
  • 2
  • 1+3

Presentation:

  • “Thiff ouff thew be thood.” (Heh. Never try to talk while you’re brushing your teeth!)
  • Robbie the Row-Boat’s great crisis of faith came when the coral reef woke up. (So much strangeness packed into one sentence.)
  • Something Very Bad had happened (works best if you love Winnie the Pooh.)
  • Casa de La Laughing Cookie (just that first paragraph is rich with inventive detail and wordplay.)

What do you know? I can find all that advice exemplified in every one of them. And all but “Edward Bear” start off with a bang by following it. Now if I can just figure out how to get there…

Or should I say, start there?