Why Writing the Opening of a Book is Kind of Like Hacking Through a Maze

Out of all the necessary evils in this world, beginnings freak me out the most. Writing them, that is.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of driving or the dentist, either. But it’s finding the beginning of a story that’s the hardest of all the evils, and I think that’s because you can’t just settle on a beginning. It’s got to be the beginning.

Which begs the question: How do you find it, and how do you recognise it once you do?

Part of why The Beginning seems so daunting is that there are so many possibilities—so many different paths to take. If you’re anything like me, pretty soon the whole situation devolves into one heck of a maze, and dang—you’re out of bread crumbs.

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“Longleat Hedge Maze (detail)”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Longleat_Hedge_Maze_(detail).JPG#mediaviewer/ File:Longleat_Hedge_Maze_(detail).JPG

I still don’t know of a way out of the maze, but I have found a chainsaw you can use to hack through its leafy walls. The trick is, you have to think in terms of multitasking.

By nature of what it is, the beginning needs to be a heavy-hitter. It needs to be doing as many things and hitting as many notes and slipping in as many hints as naturally possible. It has to arrange the domino chain of events that’ll trigger your narrative—then tip it all over.

It also has to introduce the main characters, give the reader a solid enough grasp of who they are and where they’re going, and get at what the conflict is going to be, so cut it some slack.

On one hand, when you look at everything the beginning has to babysit, it can seem overwhelming. But it’s time to get ambidextrous: On the other hand, there are only so many possible opening scenes that can meet that massive to-do list.

Take Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, for example. It opens with the protagonist, Percy, on a field trip gone wrong. Not only does that provide an organic launching point to explain the unnatural occurrences that have knocked all of Percy’s other field trips awry, it gives readers a glimpse into Percy’s troubled school life. The nature of the field trip also lets Riordan slip in some Greek mythology, which ends up being kind of important to the plot, and Percy’s reaction to the whole fiasco gives quite a bit of insight into his character.

Say whatever you want about Riordan being a one-trick pony, but his first opening pulls a lot of weight.

So next time I feel stressed because an opening is pulling me in a million different directions, I’m going to make a list of things that absolutely need to make an appearance. From there, it’s a simple matter of brainstorming a scene—the scene—that best combines all of those elements.

What about you? Any techniques to share? Any book you feel really nails The Beginning? I’m turning this over to you now.