M. Molly Backes is the author of The Princesses of Iowa, a brand-new contemporary YA novel about the complicated nature of friendship and family, and what it means to face the consequences of one’s actions head-on. When the book opens, high-school senior Paige is just returning from a summer in Paris. Sounds glamorous, right? Not so much–she spent her time in a hot, cramped apartment, looking after the world’s grossest baby . . . for free. Right off the bat, we know something happened to precipitate her summer abroad, and that her mother felt the need to get her out of town. But we don’t know exactly what that thing is, and that tension makes for an incredibly compelling opening (which you can check out now on Figment!).
How do you write a great beginning? Read on for Molly’s advice–then try your hand at a writing challenge, straight from Molly! You’ll have until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, May 15 to write a story that could get featured on the Figment homepage!
Personally, I think the beginning of a story is the hardest part to write. When I was working on The Princesses of Iowa, I wrote the ending once, and didn’t change much in revisions. I re-wrote some chapters in the middle quite a bit, while I hardly touched others. But the beginning? SIX TIMES. I wrote six different beginnings, and I wasn’t happy with five of them. Some needed to happen later in the story. Others revealed too much too soon. And others were just . . . blah.
Luckily, I eventually managed to write a beginning that I like a lot, but it was one of the very last parts of the book I wrote, and I wrote it on a day when I was in a terrible mood, cranky and close to giving up. (Sometimes those days make for the best writing!) In all my struggles with beginnings, I have come up with two theories about how to write them.
Theory #1: Your beginning should be like the overture of a musical.
You know when you go to see a musical, and you’re sitting in the gymnatorium waiting for the curtain to rise, and then the orchestra plays a super long medley of songs that lasts forever? That medley is called the Overture, and it gives the audience hints of what’s to come. So say you’re there to see Oklahoma!—in the overture, you’ll hear a little bit of “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends,” a little of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” some “I Cain’t Say No,” some “Out of My Dreams,” and of course, some “Oklahoma!” Before the curtain even rises, you have some expectations about what’s ahead–there will be some humor, some romance, some uplifting songs about the state of Oklahoma, and lots of dancing.
And I think the beginning of a story should do the same thing.
A great beginning makes promises about where the story is going to take us. We get hints about who the protagonist is, what her world is like, and what dangers may lie ahead. We’re introduced to the narrator’s voice and the tone of the story–will it be sarcastic? Determined? Cynical? Heartfelt? What will the major conflict and relationships be? What will the themes of the story be?
I’m not saying you have to include every single theme, conflict, or character in the first chapter–even Oklahoma! only gives us five or six of the fifteen songs–but give us a few hints of what’s to come.
In other words, your beginning should match the rest of your story. If the first chapter makes promises about a light-hearted romantic comedy starring the bearded lady and the strong man at an old-timey circus, your readers are going to be kind of upset if an atom bomb kills them all in chapter two and it suddenly becomes a bleak post-apocalyptic struggle to stay alive in a nuclear holocaust.
Theory #2: You can’t write your beginning until you’ve written the middle and end.*
In order to write a beginning that makes promises about who the protagonist is and where the story is going, you kind of have to, you know, know who the protagonist is and where the story is going. In my experience, the only way to do that is to write the rest of the story, and then come back and write the beginning.
Obviously you have to start somewhere, but when you’re working on a first draft, don’t spend too much time worrying that your beginning is weird or awkward–just think of it as a placeholder, and tell yourself you’ll come back and re-write it after you finish your draft. Once you know how your story ends, it will be much easier to see how it should begin.
*I wrote the beginning of this post last! I even follow my own rules!
Try This: Most stories begin shortly before a catalyst, or moment of change–an unexpected phone call, an accident, a new boy in math class. Instead of worrying about the right place to begin, skip ahead to that moment of change and start from there. Later, you can go back and fill in the beginning–the morning before everything fell apart, the days leading up to the big bang. Show us what the character’s normal life looks like so we can appreciate just how weird things will get. Let us know who your character is before she loses (or gains!) everything.
Give it a try–start in the middle! Write a piece of 200 words or fewer and tag it BackesChallenge by 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, May 15. The Figment editors will choose the four best stories–based on quality, creativity, and relevance to the prompt–to post on the Figment homepage. Read the promotion guidelines here. This challenge is open to international users.