New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.
The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.
That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.
Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.
What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.
But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?
My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.
Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.
Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.
A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!