Plotting: Trapped in the Beginning?

Many a writer gets caught in a loop of writing and rewriting the beginning of a novel. Round and round goes the loop, and with each pass the beginning gets tighter, but the ending seems farther away. Sound familiar?

Often there are two types of beginnings that get written: One for the writer—and that one probably needs to be cut no matter how many times it’s been redone—and the other for the reader.

What does it mean to say a beginning is for the writer? Well, we authors need to find our way into every story we write, somehow; something must prompt us to put words on the blank page. And it’s only natural that those initial openings often frontload the backstory, or wax heavily philosophical before a context has been established for philosophy, or meander through descriptions of winding roads and other unnecessary allegories. Believe me, I know, having thrown out numerous first chapters for each book I’ve written.

By contrast, a true beginning launches the action, introduces characters in a way that will engage readers, and generates interest in what will happen next. The beginning is an arrow aimed at the ending. As such, it needs to know what it’s aiming for.

When the ending is not yet known, it can be reassuring to write the beginning over and over until it absolutely gleams. However, doing this will likely make a writer feel attached to keeping that particular beginning. Then when it doesn’t quite fit the eventual ending, it’s harder to admit that it needs to go.

How to avoid the dreaded beginner’s loop? It may help to think of the initial beginning as a placeholder until the ending is written. Forge ahead, make it through the middle, and discover the ending. Then, and only then, it will be time to revisit the beginning. You’ll be fresh, you’ll be ready, and you’ll know what to showcase from the start.

The beginning contains implied promises to readers. Among these promises are: what genre you’re writing, where and when the setting is, and what sort of characters are involved.

Genre. Is your novel a whodunit mystery? A thriller? Maybe you’re writing fantasy or science fiction. Perhaps you’re drawn to love stories, multicultural, or action/adventure. There are many possible genres, plenty to choose from according to your interests.

Setting. Where and when your novel takes place is all part of plotting, and the beginning will set the stage for the rest of what happens.

Characters. One of the reasons people read novels instead of sticking to movies is because of the opportunity to get to know characters more deeply. What might your characters do right away to reveal personalities and voices that readers would like to spend more time around?

The beginning is one aspect of plot. There are many other elements to attend to: premise, message and themes, conflict, resolution, character stakes and arc, and how to sequence the action from the beginning through the middle to the ending, for maximum story arc. This process, though daunting at times, can also be great fun.

Victoria Hanley loves to nurture emerging writers. She's the award-winning author of seven books, and the Lighthouse Beacon Award recipient for 2016. She's teaching our Plot Fitness class at Lighthouse North starting July 5.