A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
**warning – this blog contains sort-of spoilers for The Last Leaves Falling and The Wizard of Oz**
There’s sooooo much I would like to talk you about.
The punchy-quirky-beautiful-shocking perfect one line that will propel your book right into reader’s hearts.
The hook-line-sinker of the first paragraph, or page – the varied points that people will switch off, and how to increase your chances that they’ll stay.
I could talk about the place to begin; inciting incidents and problems to fix. Tension. Action. I could talk about the dreaded prologue.
I could talk about world building; letting me feel the ground beneath my feet. And I could talk about character and how, for the right characters, drawn well enough, I would follow them across 600 pages of plotless bog-land with nothing else but whiny mosquitos for company.
But no. Here, in this hopefully-informative post about how to write beginnings, I’m turning my back on all of that to talk to you about endings. Or at least, knowing what your story is and where it’s going.
The very best beginnings, I think, are those which ground us in the story. And yes, language and character, setting and incitement are important. But they’re not everything.
Story is a long, old tradition. It’s in our blood and bones. It’s in – for the lucky ones of us – our early memories. We know story. We’re familiar with certain phrases, certain roles, the ways that plot tends to move. We know how story works. We trust story to take us someplace dangerous and bring us safely home.
And it’s the writer’s job, I think, to deliver that. Oh, sure, we can take readers right up to the brink and make them stare down an uncertain universe, but we have to bring them back before their trust and interest breaks. And one way to do that – to make a reader feel safe even amidst the utmost peril – is foreshadowing: letting them glimpse what might be to come.
In The Wizard of Oz, before she’s swept up into an adventure, Dorothy begins discontented with home, wishing she were somewhere else. Where do you go with that? Whisk her off to somewhere new. And the astute, familiar-with-story reader expects that she will make it home, changed but safe.
In The Last Leaves Falling, you’re introduced to Sora, ‘the boy who’s going to die’, at a point where he feels lost and alone… there’s only really one direction that story can go too.
I’m not saying you have to frontload everything in your opening (please don’t, actually; too much is a bad, bad thing). I’m not saying you can’t buck trends and ignore the instinctual story path (in fact, some of the most brilliantly thought-provoking, perspective-changing books take unexpected turns) but giving us a sense of what we’re in for, and following that thread will earn you reader trust. Which means you can play rougher with us than you otherwise might.
It sounds impossibly hard, right? Knowing the ending before you start, and placing that ending, hidden and secret, in the opening. Without spoiling the journey. But pretty often, it’s just a case of finding that detail – a desire, if your story is character-led, the stakes on the battlefield if you’re playing with all-out war, the setting if you want to play with outside influences on your character – and making sure it’s there. It’s letting your readers find the story.
Luckily, your story-brain will likely work in similar ways to your readers, because that history with story is shared. And if all else fails, the one secret thing that people forget? You don’t have to write the perfect beginning right at the start. If you miss things, or your story veers off onto a different path(**editorial story magic**) you can go back and change things.