In the last blog post, we discussed the purpose of an ending. We assessed that an ending must ram home the message of the novel, answer all the questions that are posed throughout the story, and close the story-arcs for the major characters in order for it to provide an emotionally satisfying conclusion. If that is the purpose of an ending, then (logically) the purpose of a beginning is to introduce the message of the novel, as well as 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 and put them off the rest of your story.
As a result, I have devised two clever ways to write a great beginning. These practical tips will help you start your novel and explain the purpose of a beginning.
Tip 1 – Introduce Your Main Character
Remember, the main character is the reason that your readers will want to read your story. He/she 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 reading the story.
In future blog posts, we shall discuss how to introduce your main character, secondary character(s) and villain/antagonist to the audience in detail. But in the meantime, I shall give you an example of a main character being introduced for the purpose of a beginning.
Example – 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 to the audience as a Moses-like figure (the Chosen One and the Saviour rapped into one).
From this opening scene, viewers get the sense that Simba is an important figure and that he has a large role to play vis-à-vis the plot.
Tip 2 – Set The Tone For Your Story
Secondly, the purpose of a beginning is to set the tone for the rest of the novel. The tone writers set very much depends upon their genre and what they want to achieve for their novel.
Example 1 – JK Rowling’s Harry Potter
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.
In essence, the opening couple of pages are lighthearted 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 – Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy
On 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, 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.
The purpose of a beginning is slightly different when the story starts either with a prologue or with a scene from the middle of the narrative.
Disclaimer 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 Tip 9 in how to create a compelling main character.)
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 the writer chooses, the prologue must be away from the main character. The event within the prologue must be linked to the plot, set the tone for the rest of the novel, and give readers a taste for what is to store for the rest of the narrative.
Example For An Earlier Time
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 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, outside it. Yet, the prologue serves an important function as it shows us the threat beyond the Wall, which will is a key feature throughout the narrative.
Disclaimer 2 – When A Narrative Begins With A Scene From The Middle
Sometimes with thrillers, 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 where we are properly introduced to the major characters.
Example – Swordfish
The 2001 action thriller, Swordfish, opens up with Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) telling the audience about how Hollywood produces “sh*t,” 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 “f***s” 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.
I would like to take this moment to say thank you for reading this blog post on the purpose of a beginning. I hope you have found it useful, relevant and interesting.
Tell me, when you read a novel, what do you want the beginning to do for you?
PS: For more blog posts, including next week’s piece on the trick to writing a brilliant chapter, please fill in the form below.