Monday, August 4, 2008

The First Course: Beginnings

This week here at the Diner, we’re serving up the first part of a three-course story meal. Yep, we’re talking about beginnings—first lines, first paragraphs, and even first chapters. Make no mistake about it: beginnings are powerful.

Consider the following scenario. You’ve heard great buzz about the new restaurant in town. You make your reservation, sit down and take in the romantic atmosphere. You place your order for soup or salad and wait for the great unveiling. The waiter approaches, places your dish before you and ugh! Hair in the food! Your appetite is ruined as you beat a hasty path out of there.

The same thing applies to your writing.

Even with good PR, a nice cover, and an interesting premise if a reader opens up your book and finds she’s wading through a quagmire of backstory, it’s the equivalent of hair in the soup. One-dimensional characters, pages of pointless window dressing and infamous info dump will send your manuscript straight into the reject pile faster than you can say, “Check, please!”

Christopher Vogler in his book, The Hero’s Journey identifies the first step in a story as “The Ordinary World.” This step sets the stage, cluing the reader in on the character and his environment before the inciting incident occurs and the story kicks into full speed. Nowadays, many writers skip this step and plow directly into step two: “The Call to Adventure.” The reader is plopped down mid-action. It's a good way to start a story, but is it the only way in today's market?

In my opinion, no. There is still a place in books for "The Ordinary World."

Blame it on my age or my fantasy background, but I like a little O.W. served up in my books. It’s my antipasto, so to speak. It whets my appetite for the big stuff to follow and as long as it’s written engagingly, furthers my understanding of the situation and doesn’t go on for too many pages, bring it on. It's a matter of volume. Too many tidbits spoil the appetite for the main dish which is what you're paying for. A good rule for writing is a good rule for life--everything in moderation.

In my WIP, the first chapter spotlights my hero in his world that isn’t even close to ordinary for us mere mortals. I did that for several reasons, chief among them being that I wanted my reader so deeply immersed in the hero’s POV that they’d be lulled into believing one scenario when, in fact, something entirely different was occurring. That plot twist provides an underlying theme for the story: appearances can be deceiving.

There is no right way to begin you're story. A rolling boil works with some while a nice slow simmer works with others. No matter which recipe you choose, be sure to connect with your reader. After all, readers are the ultimate critics and may all your reviews be 5 stars!




  1. Jody,
    I tend to be one of those writers that skips the "current" world. But I think there is a good argument for including it as you described. It's worldbuilding. Thanks for a rousing topic kick-off!


  2. Thanks Francesca. I'm not Jody--but lordy knows I answer to almost anything. ;)

    And yes, that was another point to showing the ordinary world, to worldbuild so that the reader understands a bit of where I've plopped them and how that world is different from ours.



  3. We mutated the schedule, Francesca! Tricky, huh?

    Thanks for starting our biweek off, Talia.


  4. Talia,
    I just realized you guys swapped. Am I an airhead or what? Nevertheless, great post. I really got a lot out of it.