In the last blog post/video, we discussed how to write the perfect ending. We assessed that an ending must ram home the message of the novel, answer all the questions posed throughout the story, and close the story-arcs for the major characters. That way, you will provide an emotionally satisfying conclusion. So, if that is how to write the perfect ending, then (logically) how to write the perfect beginning should be to introduce the message of the novel, pose questions, and start the characters on their respective journeys.
Well, yes and no. While it is admirable to try and put forward all those points at the beginning of the story, it is not a great idea. For one, it is very hard to pull off successfully. And, two, even if you do manage to achieve it successfully, throwing everything at readers right from the outset is likely to overwhelm them. Indeed, it may even put them off the rest of your story.
As a result, I have come up with three tips to answer how to write the perfect beginning. And I hope my tips make the writing process a little easier for you as well.
Tip 1 – Give The Audience A Hook
How to write the perfect beginning? As a writer, you have to give you audience a reason to want to read or watch your story. Because, if they have don’t have a reason, why would they remain interested in your story?
This reason, or hook if you like, should come as soon as possible in your beginning. If I am being harsh, I would say do it in your first sentence or scene. But if that’s not possible, give your audience a hook within the first few paragraphs or minutes.
Otherwise, you run the risk of your audience thinking: “Where is this going?”. And that thought is never a good one. In fact, it may mean you have lost your audience already.
Example 1 – 1984
George Orwell’s classic, 1984, opens up with the following sentence: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
What!? Just what? Instinctively, the audience knows that something is not right here. There is no 13 on a clock, so what is the story trying to tell us?
Thus, 1984 has us gripped by the narrative already. Yes, it is a strange way to begin a story, but a hook is a hook, and there is more than one way to grab the audience’s attention and interest.
Example 2 – A Monster Calls (2017)
This heart-breaking film opens with 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) asleep, but in a nightmare. He is dangling over the edge of an abyss and holding onto his mother for dear life. Also, he is crying and screaming at the top of his lungs, telling her to hold on.
Then, he wakes up in the middle of the night, crying and sweating. Conor is in distress. But what is causing him this distress? And why does he picture himself in his nightmare doing everything he can to hold onto his mother?
That is the hook. Yes, it’s a painful one, but again it grabs our interest right from the off. And that is exactly what you should aim to do with your beginning.
Tip 2 – Set The Tone For Your Story
The second tip on how to write the perfect beginning is to set the tone for you narrative. Whether you want your narrative to be cheerful and sunny, or gritty and dark, that’s up to you. And much depends upon your target audience as well, as we previously discussed in our video on how to target your audience.
But whatever tone you choose, it must be immediately apparent from the words on the page or the scenes on the screen. And this tone must be a theme right through until the end of the narrative as well.
Example 1 – The Harry Potter Series
The Harry Potter series is a seven-volume saga of high fantasy novels, aimed for children and young adults. The Philosopher’s Stone (Volume I) opens up in a semi-comic manner about the Dursleys, the family whom Harry has the misfortune of living with.
To paraphrase the opening paragraphs, the book brings an ironic smile to our faces as we read that the Dursleys are ‘perfectly normal.’ Yet, Mr Dursley is then described as a ‘beefy man with hardly any neck’; while his wife, Mrs Dursley, is described as having ‘nearly twice the usual amount of neck,’ which was good for her time as she spent most of her time craning over garden fences, spying on neighbours; and that there is ‘no finer boy’ in the world than their (bully of a) son, Dudley.
Essentially, the opening couple of pages are light-hearted and funny. Yes, the Dusleys have a mean side to them in the way that they treat Harry. But even the meanness is pantomime. Therefore, the beginning of the book sets the tone for the rest of the story, which is charming and fun.
Example 2 – The First Law Trilogy
At the other end of the fantasy spectrum is Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, a grimdark series aimed at an adult audience. The Blade Itself (Volume I) begins with Logan Ninefingers, one of several POV characters, injured and lying in muddy water after having fallen.
He is bruised, wounded and in pain. Logan coughs and spits out mud, before rolling onto his back, covering it in moss, slime and rot. He is relieved to be alive. But he also knows that his enemies are hunting him and that he has to get moving, or else he won’t be alive for much longer. And Logan is survivor, above all.
Already from the first two or three pages of The Blade Itself, we get the sense that this book has a gritty and dark tone. This encapsulates the book and tells the reader that there is more violence to come.
Example 3 – The Shining (1980)
This psychological horror film starts off with a series of sweeping helicopter shots tracking the car of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family through Glacier National Park. The car is the only moving object amidst the isolation, and isolation plays a significant role in the film.
Moreover, the music is ominous. It consists of solemnly sounded horns, stringed instruments, and haunting voices. The music makes us realise that whatever is going to happen in the film, it is not going to end well for our protagonist and his family.
How to write the perfect beginning is slightly different when the story starts either with a prologue or with a scene from the middle of the narrative.
Exception 1 – Prologues
Traditionally, prologues were used to give backstory to the narrative. This technique was used in classic Disney films like Beauty & The Beast and Cinderella, as well as in Lord of the Rings.
This technique, though, is a little out of date and not advisable. If you have important information to share with the reader regarding a character’s backstory, write it into the narrative at the right time. (For more information on this matter, see our blog posts/videos on how to create the ultimate protagonist, secondary character, and villain.)
More commonly today, prologues are used to show an event that takes place either:
- In an earlier time than in Chapter 1; or
- In another location than in Chapter 1.
Whichever type of prologue you choose, it must set the tone for the rest of the narrative and give the audience a taste for what’s to come.
Example For An Earlier Time – Stormbird
The Prologue for Stormbird, the first of Conn Iggulden’s four historical fiction novels on The Wars of the Roses, begins with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; Edmund, Duke of York; and Thomas, Duke of Clarence, standing over their deceased father, King Edward III of England in 1377.
Noticeably, Edmund tells John that he would be King but for Richard II (the grandson of Edward III via his first son, Edward, the Black Prince). John tells his brother to be quiet on the matter as it is inappropriate, not to mention treasonous. But Edmund just smiles and says that if he had been in John’s shoes, he would have been thinking about seizing the throne for himself.
Edmund’s words are important and set the tone for the rest of the series. Edmund is the founder of the House of York, and ambitious. His ambition will run through his descendants as Richard, Duke of York; King Edward IV, also Duke of York; and King Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, will all fight their Lancastrian cousins for throne in the second half of the following century.
Example For Another Location – A Song of Ice & Fire
A Game of Thrones opens up with Will, a member of the Night’s Watch, ranging north beyond The Wall. There, he and his two companions see the White Walkers with horror. The White Walkers kill Will’s two companions, but he flees south (where he is beheaded by Lord Eddard Stark in Chapter 1).
Thus, the prologue in A Game of Thrones is not set in the all-important Seven Kingdoms, where the bulk of the series takes place. Rather, it takes place outside of it. Yet, the prologue serves an important function. It shows us the threat beyond the Wall, which will is a key feature throughout the narrative.
Exception 2 – When A Narrative Begins With A Scene From The Middle
How to write the perfect beginning? Sometimes, the narrative starts with a scene from somewhere in the middle of the story, prior to winding the clock back several days to the actual start of the narrative.
At heart, the opening scene still sets the tone for the rest of the story. But the scene should be treated like a prologue, with Chapter 1 being where we are properly introduced to the major characters.
Example – Swordfish (2001)
This action thriller opens up with Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) telling the audience about how Hollywood produces rubbish movies, before returning to the bank where he is holding people hostage (with bombs and ball-bearings strapped to their vests). Gabriel makes a clear demand for money and that no-one messes with him. Or else, the hostages will get blown up.
The situation is tense, and it worsens when a police officer shoots one of Gabriel’s henchmen. Subsequently, Gabriel blows up one of the hostages in a magnificently choreographed explosion sequence. After this, the screen fades to black and we are told ‘three days earlier.’
Swordfish’s beginning certainly grabs the audience’s attention. Like a prologue, viewers get the sense that the rest of the film will be exciting, with more cool action sequences to come. Both are true, plus the film has an interesting message about misdirection as well.
Tip 3 – Introduce Your Main Character
How to write the perfect beginning? As we discussed in our video on how to create the ultimate protagonist, the main character is the reason for your story. Indeed, he is the engine that drives the plot forwards. Therefore, the beginning of the story is a good place to introduce your central protagonist and make the audience intrigued to continue following him.
There are four factors involved in introducing their main character, and there are:
- Give the audience a flavour for the character (i.e. his status, personality and goals);
- Hint at his struggles for the narrative (without divulging too much detail);
- Add parts in the dialogue that are key to the character and that will be extrapolated over the course of the narrative; and
- Show the context of the world in which he lives in.
It is worth noting that it may not be possible to enact all four of these factors in your beginning. Nevertheless, it is advisable to include as many as possible. Then, you’ll give your audience a terrific taste for what’s to come vis-à-vis your main character.
Example 1 – Simba
The Lion King starts off with Simba, a newborn lion cub, being hoisted into the air. The sun’s rays beam down upon him and all the animals kneel before their future king. In short, Simba is introduced as a Moses-like figure: the Chosen One and the Saviour wrapped into one.
From this opening scene, viewers get the sense that:
- Simba is the heir to Pride Rock, his kingdom;
- He will almost certainly at some point have to save his kingdom from a threat, either from the outside or within; and
- He lives in an animal kingdom, where the lion is king (pardon the bad pun).
There is no dialogue between the characters at the start of the Lion King. But there is the song, The Circle of Life. This music and idea is a key theme throughout the movie.
Example 2 – Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s outstanding film begins with Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) digging for silver in the Sonoran Desert at the turn of the 20th-century. Grunts aside, Daniel says not a word and the audience starts to wonder what they are watching, when Daniel falls into the shaft and breaks a leg.
Rather than cry and pity his bad luck, Daniel climbs out of the shaft and pushes himself along the ground for miles (with a broken leg). Eventually, he reaches an office to receive a silver and gold certificate claim, which will give the right to dig and trade.
From the opening scene of, we get a sense that:
- Daniel is a man of few words and has a fierce drive;
- He desires to become a rich magnate and that there are likely to be obstacles in his way to achieve his goal;
- He is a man of few words; and
- Daniel lives at a time and place (New Mexico in the early-1900s) when you could make a lot of money very quickly if you found a silver or gold mine, or an oil well, and made a claim for the land.
Exception – When You Don’t Need To Introduce Your Main Character At The Start of the Narrative
While the main character drives the narrative forwards, there is an exception to having to introduce the main character at the beginning of the story.
This exception applies either when you have a prologue (as mentioned above) or to sequels. And to be on the safe side, writers should only use it once they have created or are using an iconic character.
Example – The Dark Knight & The Dark Knight Rises
Bruce Wayne/Batman is the main character throughout Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. But the latter two instalments in the series do not begin with him. Rather, they begin by introducing us to the villains, the Joker and Bane, respectively.
Bruce/Batman is relegated to being introduced in the second scene in The Dark Knight and the third in The Dark Knight Rises. Director Christopher Nolan could do this because he established the character in Batman Begins (which does open up with the titular character).
Moreover, Batman is an iconic character, possibly the most noteworthy in the DC Universe. Therefore, Nolan had leeway with regards to introducing his version of the character in the latter two films; particularly, following the success of Batman Begins.
Thank you for reading for reading this blog post on how to write the perfect beginning. I hope you have enjoyed it, and that it makes the writing process a little easier for you as well.
Tell me, what do you think I have missed out to write a great beginning?
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