Pacing, Part 13: Beginnings (with Jane Austen)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

In the beginning of every story is a beginning.

This seems obvious, but it’s one of the hallmarks of an early writer to leave it off entirely and to start in what the writer thinks is in media res, or “in the middle.”

Without a proper beginning, the reader doesn’t have a chance to care about the story.  It’s still possible that they’ll enjoy and read the story–but only if the cover and plot description promise exactly what they want, or because they owe the writer a favor that makes them read past the beginning.

A beginning gives the reader whatever information they need in order to care about the story.

The most usual type of beginning involves a character in a setting with a situation they must deal with.  These three elements must be either summarized in an interesting fashion, or demonstrated in an interesting fashion.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

This is the opening of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.  It begins with a short summary, well pervaded with snark.

Change the attitude even slightly, and the opening becomes that of a completely different book:

Everyone knows that rich single men are prey.  Too bad for them.  Every rich man has a woman’s name all over him, but hidden, as if it were under the silver scratch-off paint on a lottery ticket.

Please note the way the change in attitude (similar but not identical) is reflected in the change in pacing, on the paragraph, sentence, and word levels.

More on how to demonstrate, rather than summarize, in a bit.

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