Hey all, Sam here.
Welcome back to Weekend Writer. I’m excited to have you here. This week I’m delving into the next section of The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell by Paula Munier, and while I definitely feel that you can jump into this chapter by chapter deep dive discussion at any point, if you’d like to check out the Chapter One post, you can find it at this link.
And if this is your first Weekend Writer post, hello! Every Friday I have a post that focuses on creativity and inspiration and the craft of writing. On the first Friday of each month I have a post that includes a variety of potential writing prompts to help spark the creative process. Use them or don’t; that’s up to you. And on the last Friday of the month, it is time to share a scene or a story or a snippet, whatever creative projects you’ve been working on. For all the Fridays in between, I’ll be doing a deep dive into the creative process. Sometimes that will be books on writing, and sometimes it’ll be based on panels or lectures on writing, and sometimes it might just be a topic I want to talk about, without any real source to focus on and pull from.
I know these posts have helped me with my creative journey, and I hope that they can be a help to you too. Okay, that’s enough of an introduction. Let’s go ahead and jump into the post.
Give your story its best start!
The best beginnings possess a magical quality that grabs readers from the first word and never lets them go. But beginnings aren’t just the door into a fictional world. They are the gateway to the realm of publishing–one that could shut as quickly as it opens.
In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors, and captivate readers. You’ll learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on page one, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques, and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot. You’ll also examine the best-selling novels from different genres to learn the secrets that experienced writers use to dive straight into a story.
With thorough examinations of voice, point of view, setting, dialogue and conflict, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings is a must-have tool for luring your readers in with your opening pages–and convincing them to stick around for the ride.
“Writing a book? Hard. Writing the beginning of a book? Rocket science! Strap on your spacesuit, because thanks to Munier’s nuanced, actionable breakdown of every possible aspect of a gripping opening, authors everywhere can now take their books to the stars.” —K.M. Weiland
Chapter Two: The End is Where We Start From – Scene One
This entire book is very much focused on beginnings: beginnings of books, beginnings of chapters, beginnings of scenes. So sometimes it feels like the same thing is being stated multiple times in only slightly different ways. In the Foreword and the first chapter, there was a lot of focus on how the beginning needs to grab the interest of the reader or editor or agent, whoever is reading what you’ve written. It shouldn’t have been a surprise then that this chapter begins by reiterating that the most important thing that the beginning needs to do is to keep the reader reading.
Munier then goes on to explain that she reads through thousands of openings each year, and that only a few actually keep the reader reading. She reads queries, and works by writers from conferences and workshops, as well as writings by her clients and her friends. Basically she establishes that she reads enough beginnings to be able to speak knowledgeably on this subject. And what Munier says is that more often than not, she doesn’t keep reading.
Here’s why: I’m not engaged, entertained, or enlightened. I’m mostly bored. And so I put that story down and move on to the next. And the next. And the next.page 25
After that Munier talks about when she started with the agency she had to read through over a thousand queries in her first week, and the founder of the agency basically told her not to stress because for every couple hundred queries there will only be one or two that are compelling enough to warrant requesting the rest of the manuscript. And honestly, to that I have to say…Ouch. How sad is it to think about the fact that only one or two out of 200 openings is compelling? Because wow, that is sort of a depressing statistic. Only 1% of openings, in Munier’s experience, is compelling enough to want to read more.
I’ll be honest. This point made me pause in my reading and note taking for this chapter. It definitely made me think over the openings I’ve written. Like, I know some of them have been a bit weak, at least in the initial drafts. Honestly, I think the beginning, the first chapter or two, is probably my most edited and rewritten part of my stories. Even when it comes to the drafting process, if the opening chapters don’t feel right, I’ll go back and edit and rewrite, over and over, before continuing on with the rest of the novel.
That brings its own issues, though, at least in my opinion. Because if you focus too hard on the beginning then you’re ignoring the rest of the story. And sometimes I feel like the beginning can become better after the whole story has been written and I understand how it ends. After all, the second draft and any other subsequent drafts can add in more foreshadowing and make sure that the writing style and voice is consistent from beginning to end.
Basically Munier finds only a few manuscripts that capture her attention and hold onto it, and they generally answer the questions that she brought up in Chapter One. I do have all of those mentioned in last week’s Weekend Writer post. And Munier continues on to mention one of the biggest mistakes she sees in the beginnings of manuscripts that end up in the slush pile, and that is that nothing happens in them.
Too many writers open with backstory or description or inner monologue–which means that nothing is happening. The opening falls flat on its face, felled by its own static weight. Or something is happening, but it’s something that we’ve seen a million times before–and don’t care to see again. Or something is happening, but it’s drowning in minutiae. Or something is happening, but it’s not fully dramatized.
Dramatization is the key. Drama is the stuff of storytelling–and it’s what separates the boring beginnings from the compelling beginnings. Dramatize your opening, and you will fulfill the promise of “Once upon a time.”
This means writing in scenespage 26
Munier says that scenes are the units, the building blocks, of storytelling, and that the scenes help to piece together action to keep the story moving, and a good scene will include elements that have been discussed already, namely genre, action, character, setting, voice, and elements.
Top Ten (Plus One!) Reasons Your Story Opening Doesn’t Work
- Not enough happens
- The story’s genre is not clear
- It’s not clear what the story is about
- It’s not clear who the protagonist is
- There’s nothing unique enough about the story to set it apart
- The story is not grounded in setting
- The protagonist is not likable or admirable and readers can’t relate to him/her
- The story does not engage the reader’s emotions
- It’s all showing and no telling
- The story is not told in a strong voice
- There’s no narrative thrust
From here Munier then moves into examples from a variety of different stories in several different genres. After each example, Munier gives us a few sentences talking about why the opening works, what questions it brings up, what it makes us feel in regards to the protagonist. I think having so many examples included is a wonderful aspect of this book. It doesn’t just tell us how to be effective with our beginnings; it includes a number of examples that show us effective elements and setting and character and voice, etc.
And honestly, I love books about craft that give you examples from published books, because then we get to see the writing advice in practice, which is very useful. These examples can be found on pages 28-34 if you get your own copy of the book and want to check it out.
What it all ends up boiling down to is building scene after scene that fuels your story. So something happens to your characters, they react to what happened, and this makes the reader react to what’s going on and turn the page to the next scene where something happens to your characters, they react to it, and then the reader reacts to that, turning the page once again…and so on and so forth.
This leads to an exercise. Munier tells you to look at the first 250 words of your story and then examine it, asking yourself a few questions. Something happens to someone: what happens and to whom? That someone the thing happens to reacts to it: what do they do? Finally the reader reacts: how? Give the opening to a few different readers and ask them how they feel. Is how they feel the reaction you intended with your writing.
Munier says that this is a good exercise for your writers’ group. I don’t have a writers’ group…but next week is the final Friday of the month, which means the Weekend Writer post will be sharing writing. So..here’s what I’ll do: I’ll share something I wrote based on the prompts from the beginning of the month AND I’ll share the first 250 words or so of the novel that I’m currently working on. If you’d like to share some of your writing, whether from the prompts I gave out a couple weeks ago or just your own writing in general, feel free to share them next Friday. I’d absolutely love to read them.
From there Munier goes into Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, and uses a few of Steven Spielberg’s successful film first scenes to examine the beginning, middle, and end of each scene. This book looks at “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “E.T.” These examples can be found on pages 36-37.
After this we are led into another exercise, this one asking us to think of the opening scene of our favorite movie and then watch it again. Afterwards we are to look at the beginning, middle, and end of the scene to examine it, asking why it works, what we can learn from the structure, and what we can then apply to our own openings.
This leads Munier into doing a breakdown of the book/film “Eat, Pray, Love,” breaking it down into Act One, Act Two, and Act Three, and then going in depth into the opening scene of the first act.
Once again this leads Munier into asking us to look at the first scene of our own story and ask questions like: what conflict drives the scene, how does that conflict echo the main story questions, can you break the scene into beginning, middle, and end, and how do they relate to each other.
Finally we are led into looking ahead to the end of the story, and how ends often have some sort of reflection back to the beginning.
In the best stories, the ending always circles back to the beginning. This circle of story is what separates the great storytellers from everyone else. If you know the end of your story already, then you can make sure that your opening scene echoes that last scene. But if you don’t yet know where your story will end or if you are not sure how to close that circle of story, don’t worry. We’ll talk more about that in chapter seven.page 41
This leads to Munier giving us a selection of a few novels and laying out their first lines and then their last lines, just to show off how they relate to each other, how they show off the circle of story.
“I always rewrite the very beginning of a novel. I rewrite the beginning as I write the ending. … So the style of the novel has a consistency.”Joyce Carol Oates
In the end, Munier says that it doesn’t matter how good your opening scene is if the idea the story is based on is flawed, whether from a storytelling or marketing perspective. And there is a hint towards what to look forward to in the next chapter, namely that of making sure your idea is strong enough, as well as rethinking your opening scene so you get the biggest blastoff for your story.
This is a whole lot of thinking about the opening scene and the beginning of stories. Honestly it’s a lot more thinking about beginnings than I think I’ve ever done before this. But I can agree that beginnings are very important to a story. While I generally give a book at least 100 pages or so to grab my attention, I know not every person out there does the same. There are so many different opinions out there about how long to give a book before setting it aside. Some people only give it a page, some a chapter…it’s such a personal decision as a reader.
All right, well that is all from me for today. I hope this continued deep dive into the writing craft is useful to you. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I will be back soon with more geeky content.
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