Beginnings Matter

I’m writing my next concept to post here soon. It’s not ready yet. Most of the ideas in my notebook are nothing more than a short paragraph explaining the general concept behind the story. I may note character names, places, or the voice of the story, but these entries usually describe the gist of the conflict. To turn them into functioning stories requires a lot of thought. Ideas are a dime a dozen; readable novels are much harder to produce.

Whether the story has legs is a judgment call, but no matter how novel-worthy the concept may be, if I can’t start it right, then it’s not going far. The beginning of a novel has to draw the reader in and leave them dying to read the next chapter. I’ve started many books that I’ve abandoned because the beginning left me unenthusiastic about where the story was headed.

Here’s the beginning from my favorite novel, Shantaram, but Gregory David Roberts:

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.

That’s just the first sentence of the first chapter, but it’s powerful. It pulls you in immediately. What did he learn? Why is he being tortured? Where is he? What’s going to happen? These are just a few of the questions that entered my mind when I opened his wonderful novel and began to read. Roberts masterfully begins his story with introspection and vivid imagery. You’re immediately interested in the narrator and what he’s doing. What follows is almost one thousand pages of a fantastic story that takes you through the guts of the city of Bombay while Roberts runs from the law and works for the mob. I loved it, but the beginning is what got me.

This novel really drove home the fact that beginnings matter. Sure, it’s self-evident. If you don’t like what you first read, you’ll put the book down forever, but I’d argue it’s more than that. I’ve read plenty of books that have started slow and gotten better like a rickety, old car engine that has to be run a bit before you can put the car into drive. I’m a determined reader; I give novels a benefit of a doubt before I give up on them (in fact, I gave Roberts’ second book almost a third of the way before I gave up on it, disappointed that he didn’t recapture the magic of his first one). At the same time, when I find a book that’s interesting, I always read the first page or two to see if it truly interests me. If my curiosity is not piqued in that short read, most likely, I won’t buy the book.

Knowing this as a reader, I always want my novels to begin in the most interesting way possible. I want to hook the reader immediately. My beginning has to be stellar. If it isn’t, then my novel most likely won’t be well-received. Beginnings matter. They can be the difference between success and failure, so each concept I post here, although in draft form, has to be something that’d make you keep on reading. If not, it will forever remain just that – a concept.

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