I think it’s safe to say that the hardest part of writing a book for a lot of writers is the beginning. Facing that first page and knowing that all those ideas in your head are supposed to make up the hundreds of pages that will eventually be your story can be intimidating.
But I think one of the best ways of conquering that blank screen is to come prepared. Having an idea of how to capture your future reader’s attention with the first couple pages will help you stride forward with more confidence, so that hopefully you won’t even notice that you’re chapters ahead from the beginning by the time you’re done.
So let’s get started.
Start the scene in your head first
This may seem like a given, but I don’t mean when you sit down to write. I mean really think about it. Spend some days getting yourself a good visual of where this story is going and how it starts. Maybe even look up images on Pinterest that have the same themes as your story, or listen to music that you would imagine as the soundtrack if it was a movie. Or the opposite, taking some time in peace and quiet to let your mind wander for a while in your own world. Anything that gets your head in the game!
For me, I’m usually so excited to start on a new project that I’ve been over the beginning chapter a million times in my head already. So I would recommend getting that beginning image drilled in your head some time before you even start. That way when you actually sit down to write, there’s no question on where to begin, it’s only a matter of writing it down.
I forget where the original quote is from, but “enter late and leave early” is one of the best advice I’ve heard when I comes to writing, and has helped me whenever I’m struggling with a scene.
The concept comes from theater. Whenever you see characters stepping into the scene, it’s almost never at the very beginning of anything. They’re usually in the middle of something—a conversation, playing a game, doing a project—anything. And they don’t have to fill you, the viewer, in on what they’re doing, because you start to understand just by watching them.
So for example:
James got up and had breakfast with his mom—toast and eggs. Afterward, he brushed his teeth, took a quick shower, and headed out the door. He was meeting with Harry at the batting cages.
This can go on, but I think you’re bored already. We don’t need an itinerary of everything James did that isn’t important. If nothing important happened at the batting cages, we can even skip that. However, we don’t have to delete James and Harry’s game from the story at all:
James laughed as he came through the door to the kitchen, setting his bat and gloves on the ground beside him. “Admit it, I totally creamed you,” he taunted as he kicked his shoes off.
Harry sniffed. He took off his helmet and waved his friend off. “You cheated on that last round, that’s the only reason why.”
“Oh sure, blame it on me,” James drawled. He threw himself onto the couch. “I’m sure it’ll make up for the fact that you just can’t hit.”
Notice that I didn’t even have to outright say they went to the batting cages. Their gear suggests at what they were doing, and so does their conversation. We even know something of what happened during the game because James obviously won, and Harry obviously suspects foul play.
Entering late not only better engage the reader, but also cuts away a lot of unnecessary words that you could be using advancing the story, rather than introducing a lot of needless information.
And leave early
Now, that’s how we enter late, but how do we leave early?
This is simply done by understanding when you’ve already gotten your point across, and ending the chapter or scene there, not a minute after.
So we don’t have to go into every detail until James goes to bed. We can just end the scene like this:
“James Kyle Erickson, you had better not be lying on my couch in those filthy baseball clothes of yours.” His mother was standing in the hallway with a hand on her hip, a duster in the other hand.
“Busted,” Harry cackled as James shot up.
“Sorry, ma’am,” James said, cringing at the use of his full name. “I was just going to change.”
His mother gave him a warning look and then started on her way. “Oh,” she added. “And your friend Emily called. Said something about meeting after school for some rehears—”
“Oh, okay, yeah, I’ll call her back,” James cut her off, ignoring Harry’s strange looks. “Thanks Mom.”
She nodded once and left to continue dusting.
“Emily Wood?” Harry rose an eyebrow.
James laughed, hoping it sounded believable. “Ah, girls, you know? Keeps asking me to help her rehearse for that school play thing she’s in.”
Thankfully, understanding dawned on Harry. “Oh, that. Psh, how annoying. I’m not even going to that stupid thing.”
“I know, right?” James said, though a part of him deflated as he was reminded he could never tell his friend about his secret aspersions about acting without being ridiculed.
But at least he had Emily.
There. No more detail is needed, we already know more than enough about James and his secret hobby, his concerns about his friend ever knowing, and his friend Emily, who’s the only one that knows. No need to continue the scene after that point, so we have gracefully left early.
Pose a question, and capture the reader
Using the concept of starting late and leaving early, you’re capturing your reader right away. Starting late, we don’t have all of the information to ascertain what’s happening yet until we read ahead and understand. But just as we finally get an understanding of what’s going on, leaving early makes us have to keep reading to see what happens next.
Whatever direction you want the story to go in, don’t start at the beginning of it. Start somewhere in the middle of things. Try to introduce things as little as possible. Explain things through dialogue or things that happen that tell the story if you have to.
What this does is make your reader ask themselves questions.
Who is James? Who’s Harry? What were they playing?
And at the end, you’ll ask deeper questions. Will James be able to hide his talents from his friend? Will his friend ever accept him for who he is? And what’s his relationship with Emily like?
Questions, however simple, are what drive your reader to keep going. And in the beginning you want to pose the right kind of questions that will drive you readers to want to know as much as they can about your characters. Keep your readers dangling with things they’ll only learn if they continue. And that will bring your readers to the questions you really want them to ask.
Will James allow peer pressure prevent him from achieving his goals in acting and make him give up the opportunity of a lifetime (aka the main plot!)?
Give your characters objectives
A character’s wants can drive a reader to keep reading just to see them get it. For example, James meeting up with Emily for rehearsal. Or something simple, like getting tickets to a game. Anything that makes us want along with that character so that we keep reading to find out if they get it.
And, I find, creating a desire for your character that they don’t get until later also engages you as the writer to keep writing. I’m more enthusiastic about writing a scene that I would read, and having something to drive me to the next chapter I believe works on me just as much as it does my readers.
Play it all out in your head
This is a sort of repeat of the first step! But now that we have all of the elements together, we can better craft that first chapter.
What does our main character want?
What questions can we pose for our readers right away?
What’s happening in the story right now, and where can we enter late?
And once we’re there, how will it end? Can we back out early enough that our readers are begging for more?
Let your mind drift on it. Don’t answer all these questions right away. Play around in the world of your own making and see if it checks all the boxes already, and if it doesn’t, mess around some more until it does.
I can’t put words on your screen to make it any less empty when you face it. But I can prepare you to have an arsenal at the ready when you do, so you know exactly where this is going when you begin.
You got this!