This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂
This is my weakness, really. I’m terrible at beginnings, or rather I have been. My attitude has always been, “My readers are smart; I shouldn’t have to tell them everything…and then tell them everything again…and again…”
I started out as a poet, see, and readers of poetry hang on your every word. They let words sink in. They ponder.
Readers of fiction don’t ponder until after they put the book down, really, which ideally they have read in a single, rushed sitting. Kind of the opposite of poetry, in which you know it’s a good poem if you can’t finish the stanza, because the poem has triggered so many emotions and memories that you have to process them first.
I have a problem with not adding enough to my beginnings. Some people try to shove in too much (the “wait wait let me explain my entire world to you before the characters get to do anything” people). And both groups, I think, can end up getting burned by early criticism and try to do the exact opposite. Overkill abounds.
For a good beginning, I think the point of balance is:
- When you tell the reader what they need to know to get through the scene with everything making sense, but not more than that.
- Lines that “promise” that there will be more information on areas where the reader doesn’t need to know something yet, but will clearly be curious. (Ironically, these go in the endings of things–which we’ll talk about later.)
- Anchoring everything through your POV character’s POV, rather than getting ranty or explainey as an author.
What the readers need to know:
- Who are the characters involved, especially the main character and (if different) the POV character (as in a Holmes/Watson duo).
- What the setting is, including time frame, location, and any attitudes/rules about the way the setting will be treated (for example, the UK of a James Bond movie has different attitudes and rules than the UK of a Dr. Who episode).
- What is going on, including enough of what went on before the start of the scene/story to get us up to speed.
I’d also like to note that readers need to know this stuff…a lot. Often. As in the words that cover this information are probably about a quarter to a third of the book. Not the first third of the book–this stuff has to be scattered throughout every chapter, every scene, and every try/fail of the book (more on try/fails next time).
At the beginning of the book, you have a lot of “beginning” information to cover. Then, every time you change POV characters, introduce a new character, change scene locations, or add a plot twist or new information, you also have to have more “beginning” information.
Let’s look at an example, the movie version of The Princess Bride.
- There is a scene introducing the boy, his mom (who never shows up again; she’s just there for the boy to whine at and to deliver the information that the grandfather is going to be there), the illness, and the boy’s love of sports and video games.
- There’s another scene introducing the grandfather, the book, the boy’s opinion about same.
- There’s another scene introducing the farm, the girl, the farm boy, and their relationship.
- There’s another scene deepening their relationship, and the two begin to kiss.
- Whoah! The rules of the story have changed, and the boy interrupts to demand that the grandfather explain the rules of the story. “Is this a kissing book?”
- The story resumes and the girl and the farmboy split apart so the farmboy can seek his fortune.
- But news comes to the girl of his death, and she announces that she will never love again.
- Five years pass, and the girl has become a princess, about to marry Prince Humperdink, and we’re shown (and told) that she doesn’t love him.
All of this stuff is the beginning. We only start getting to the action of the plot when Vizzini tries to kidnap her.
However, the action of the plot (the middle) also has a beginning. The beginning of the main plot, which is “try to rescue Buttercup,” goes like this:
- The princess is abducted.
- Vizzini explains that he is kidnapping the princess in order to start a war between Florin and Guilder.
- The three kidnappers’ characters are introduced, so that we like Inigo and Fezzik, but not Vizzini.
- The princess tries to escape from the ship and is threatened with death.
- The story is interrupted by the grandfather as the rules of the world appear to change. The princess doesn’t get eaten at this time–but someone might get killed.
- The grandfather gets back to the story, the princess is “rescued” by her abductors.
- Inigo spots someone behind them, but isn’t sure who it is.
- The kidnappers flee to the cliffs of insanity (new location), climb them, and cut the rope.
- Vizzini tells Inigo to kill the person following them, then catch up.
Now we’re at the main action of the main action. Yes, this whole “beginnings, middles, and endings” thing gets a bit complicated and may seem repetitive (but if done right, the reader won’t notice).
The main action of the story is Westley’s efforts to rescue Princess Buttercup from marrying Humperdink. The story isn’t over until he has definitively rescued Princess Buttercup from Humperdink. Everything up to this point has been setting up the rescue of Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.
But wait! There’s more beginning.
- Inigo paces around, watches the man in black climb with painful slowness up the cliff.
- He throws the man in black a rope. He climbs up, after some bits of dialogue that establish more of Inigo’s character.
- The man in black climbs to the top and is about to start the main action of the main action of the main action of this scene, when he is interrupted by Inigo, who wants him to rest up.
- They have more conversation to establish Inigo’s character.
- The man in black says, “You’ve been more than fair,” etc.
Now the action begins, and they begin to fight.
However, each beat in the action has its own beginning as well.
- They both pose with the sun setting behind the man in black, at the edge of the cliff. (Beginning.)
- Inigo takes a few slashes with his sword, which the man in black easily dodges. (Middle.)
- Inigo pauses, circling his opponent. (Ending.)
- They both pose, now with the sun setting behind Inigo, at the edge of the cliff. (Beginning.)
- The man in black attacks Inigo, using the same moves, which Inigo easily, but less easily, dodges. (Middle.)
- Inigo smiles. (Ending.)
- Inigo begins another exchange, this time more complex. (Beinning.)
- The two play back and forth, demonstrating their basics to each other, but it’s clear that this won’t be over very quickly. (Middle.)
- The camera transitions to a wide shot, showing the setting around them. (A bit of setting interrupting a slow spot in the middle, to help give it a little structure.)
- The swordplay continues, as if it could go on all day like this. (Middle.)
This is the beginning of the swordfight (made up of several tiny beginnings, middles, and endings of its own). This part of the fight is more about establishing who is more skilled (not clearly either at this point), how they both fight (the man in black remains a mystery), and isn’t about combat and winning so much as it is about feeling each other out.
The beginnings continue on a regular basis throughout the fight:
- Inigo begins analyzing the man in black’s technique.
- The man in black begins driving Inigo back, even though Inigo has demonstrated all this learning.
- Inigo begins driving the man in black backward after he switches hands.
- The man in black compliments Inigo at the top of the ruined tower, before switching swords.
- Inigo goes after his sword.
- The man in black throws away his sword.
- Inigo asks, “Who are you?”
- They begin fighting again.
- The man in black holds the sword at Inigo’s face after disarming him the last time.
What’s happening is that in order to keep the fight from becoming one big blob of action, the beginning/middle/ending structure is being applied to break up the fight into smaller sections. Unless there’s a reason not to, this is generally how stories work: people’s brains can only take in a few bits of any one thing at a time. In order to reset the brain so we don’t get confused (as you would if this were a real swordfight!), the story is broken up into smaller and smaller parts. The beginnings help keep the viewer from getting confused or–even worse!–getting bored with the action.
We need to know:
- Where each part of the fight happens in relation to the rest of the fight. Why didn’t Westley fall off the cliff when Inigo had him pinned to the wall? Where did that wall come from? We know this, because we were shown the fight up the stairs, then a shot of the ruined tower, and then Inigo pins Westley against the crumbling wall.
- The “rules” of the fight. Inigo doesn’t just fight Westley. First Inigo studies Westley using a simple bit of technique, and only then does he get more intense. Also, we know that Inigo is supposed to kill Westley, regardless: this sets the expectation that this is a life-or-death fight.
- What the characters are like. We learn about Inigo’s character (he doesn’t want to kill a weaker opponent but will if he has to, and wants a good fight more than anything else at this point). We learn about Westley’s character (he holds back until he must use his full technique in order to move past Inigo). We learn that they are both masters. (And, later, in the beginning of another scene, Humperdink confirms this, which tells us about Humperdink’s character.)
Because we know these things, the fact that Westley cracks Inigo over the head to save him at the end of the scene is both a surprise, and yet makes perfect sense. The expectation of this being a life-or-death fight was set in the beginning, more than once–but it wasn’t set by Westley. His goal was always just rescuing Princess Buttercup. We just assumed that it would require death in order to do so, because Inigo’s goal was to kill Westley…after a good fight.
When you’re studying a scene:
- Look for new locations, characters, and information being introduced, especially if it’s right before a fight or argument, a conflict of some kind.
- At the beginning of a chapter or scene, look for the first action that has something at stake for the main character. That’s the start of the middle–everything before that must necessarily be a beginning. But it has to be an action; saying that something will be at stake isn’t action.
- Watch for paragraphs of nothing but description. They often are used as a structural element to reset the reader’s brain and mark the beginning of a new attempt at solving a problem.
- Look for small talk that goes nowhere; it can be used as a beginning, too (Agatha Christie does this a lot, and it’s all over the mystery novel Fletch, too).
As we look at beginnings, middles, and endings, please notice something: beginnings aren’t just the start of a story, or a chapter, or even a scene. They’re all over the freaking place! But that doesn’t mean they have to be long, drawn-out, or repetitive. Even though such a huge amount of The Princess Bride is dedicated to beginnings at each level, as a viewer you barely notice it, because the beginnings cover slightly new information, or someone else presenting the same information but in a different way, every time. A good beginning doesn’t feel laborious. It just feels comfortable, like you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.
And that’s your goal, as a writer.
Next time, we cover the middles…
Once upon a time, the fae came to earth to engineer the perfect changeling…then the Others began to shatter their world. Are the fae here to save us from their fate…or to replace us and avoid their own? Click here to find out.