Anton Chekov said, “I let myself go at the beginning and write with an easy mind, but by the time I get to the middle I begin to grow timid and to fear my story will be too long…That is why the beginning of my stories is always very promising and looks as though I were starting on a novel, and the middle is huddled and timid, and the end is…like fireworks.”
Last week, this blog suggested five requirements for the first few pages of your bestseller. This week, we present six more!
You’ll want those first pages to be your very best, so try this:
1. Your beginning should move quickly with vivid action. The first chapter is not the place for deep introspection, navel-gazing or explanation of tragic backstory. All of that can come about the first fourth of the story when the protagonist is debating whether or not to move forward on the adventure. In the beginning, concentrate on convincing the reader this character is worth following through his actions and words. Let’s turn our attention to Cars. The first scene is a race! What’s more active than that? The viewer meets Lightning McQueen (who also wasn’t that likable) and sees him in action. We rooted for him to win and we didn’t even know why. The action told us about his history and his strengths and weaknesses. We were far more willing to watch what happened to him because we had seen him in action.
2. Your beginning should also explain the status quo. What is the main character’s life like? In just a few pages, you’re going to have that inciting incident jump on the reader like a jungle cat. To have the reader react well and care about the protagonist, the reader needs to know what peace is like for this main character. If done effectively, the reader will become more sympathetic to their plight and hope they fight that tiger well. This is where Belle from Beauty and the Beast sings Bonjour and shows us what it’s like in her poor provincial town. We know something is coming, (I mean the title is kind of a spoiler.) We’re more sympathetic to her because we understand how much she will lose once the story gets going.
“I almost always urge people to write in the first person. Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.”
― William Zinsser
3. Your beginning should explain, even briefly, what the deepest longing is for the protagonist. Now as you sculpt the story, you can add to this, or change it. The story hinges on your protagonist’s desire. Express this in a simple choice they make, something they say, or how they respond to a situation. Make sure that this desire is significant: it must be something that is universal, something we can all identify with. Oh, Ariel, can you sing us that song again? In The Little Mermaid, we see Ariel swimming around describing her collection of treasures, explaining how unsatisfying they are. Part of Your World explains her deepest longing and sets the viewer up. We wonder now how she is going to get it.
4. Your beginning should have a big event. This is called the inciting incident. Besides being redundant, this is the big event that gets everything going for our main character. Often, the event is unexpected and disturbing. In Snow White, the queen hates our sweet little princess. The queen makes a decision that forces Snow White into the woods. This changes everything for Snow. Within your first few pages, you need to have your main character face something unexpected — it can be positive or negative — that sets the story in motion around them. Hopefully, this incident will spark even more sympathy for them and keep the reader engaged.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
― Ernest Hemingway
5. Your beginning must have a figurative or literal threshold for your main character. He or she enters a new world or a new phase of life that is unfamiliar. In Toy Story, Woody unwillingly crosses the threshold from being Andy’s favorite toy to his second favorite. With the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, everything about Woody’s life is different. He has to figure out how he’s going to handle it. We’ve all been rejected. We’ve all tried to make sense of it. So Woody has our sympathy. Woody crosses another threshold when he decides to rescue Buzz against his better judgment, but that crossing goes into the second act. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
6. Your beginning should ask questions. What will happen next? In A Bug’s Life, by the end of the first act, the viewer wondered what was going to happen to Flick. The viewer wondered what the Ant Queen was going to do about the Grasshopper terrorists. As the story progresses, the questions should become more complicated and not necessarily answered.
Chekov clearly knew what he was doing. So take your time and do this right. Your readers will thank you!