Don’t Start at the Very Beginning

August 2, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Allison K Williams

When Julie Andrews sang “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music, she stressed the building blocks. Her seven Austrian stepchildren-to-be needed to understand the scale before yodeling their heartfelt emotions through the Alps. As writers, we need building blocks, too—a sense of the seeds of our story, the events in our background shaping our family’s behavior and our own, our cast of characters, an overview of the dramatic structure.

Our readers don’t need this information.

There are four future memoirists in this picture

Starting at the very beginning, in memoir, essays or novels, is a very bad place to start. Following a classic “worst part of the problem” prologue with chapters of backstory leaves the reader asking when we’re going to get to the good part. If your childhood is the story, great! But if the bulk of your dramatic action takes place in adulthood, get the reader there quickly. You can always flash back later if there’s a key childhood moment that explains, justifies or undermines the present dramatic action.

Readers, agents and editors make decisions—often subconsciously—from the first sentence, first paragraph and first page. Will continuing to read be an effort of will or an act of obligation? Or will the story scoop them up and carry them along?

Three common mistakes that disconnect readers from your first-page(s):

1) Starting with backstory. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter plunge the reader into the story? Or is it environment, set-up, or explanation of events to come? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph, maybe even the first two paragraphs.

For a book, see what’s actually needed in the first 50 pages. Ask a friend who hasn’t read the manuscript (and ideally, doesn’t know your story) to read pages 50-70, with no preliminaries. Have them list information they understand from those pages, like “they live in Chicago” or “her mother is an alcoholic.” Cut those things from the first 50 pages—if they’re clear now, they don’t need explaining earlier. Have the reader also list what they wish they knew or didn’t understand. Keep those elements from the first 50 pages, but consider whether they belong before, or should be woven in later.

2) Prologue-as-overview. Editing memoir manuscripts, I see an awful lot of prologues summarizing the story to come, carefully laying out the upcoming difficulties in dealing with the situation described on the back cover. It’s common to be worried that the reader won’t “get it,” and as memoirists, this is a scary proposition. What if someone reads my story and doesn’t understand me? What if I don’t make sense? But explaining the plot in advance distances the reader and removes dramatic tension.

We already know you’re going to make it—you wrote a book about it. Keep us guessing how you’ll get to the end of the book. Take a long, hard look at your prologue—is it making an enticing promise to the reader about a powerful dramatic element or intriguing character they’ll meet later? Or is it an overview of why you’re telling this story, listing key moments and situations to come, explaining “why I’m like this”?

3) Too many nouns. When multiple people, places and things are immediately introduced, the reader doesn’t know who or what is important. If the essay opens with six family members are at the dinner table, which ones should they carefully remember? If the reader encounters a detailed group in your opening paragraphs, they get confused and mentally back off, trying to see the bigger picture and decide what/who matters. They can also start wondering if this essay is aligned with their interests, instead of getting hooked by connecting with a key character or theme in the first page.

Count the number of nouns in your opening paragraph or page. If there are more than three people, places or things, ask yourself if the reader can track them—and why they’d want to.

If your memoir has a technical element (like sailing or horseback riding) or takes place in a specific subculture (like a particular religion or ethnic group), get the reader into the flow of the story before breaking down individual unfamiliar elements. If you’re in a racially or ethnically distinct group, you don’t have to “tour guide” your culture for white readers. Rather than defining unfamiliar words or practices, let readers outside your experience bond with your larger purpose and teach themselves the details from context—there’s always Google if they’re stuck.

As for “Do-Re-Mi”? To be honest, I’d cut those first two lines. Sure, the deer is an interesting sub-character, but you could get her in later when she directly affects the action. And do we really need to know it’s sunny right away? Start with who “Mi” is, establish there’s a long, long way to run, and start running.

Allison K Williams is the Brevity Blog’s Social Media Editor. Struggling with your beginning? Join Allison and Creative Nonfiction Magazine for Beautiful Beginnings, Brilliant Endings August 24th (yes, there’s a replay!) More info/register here.

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§ 21 Responses to Don’t Start at the Very Beginning

  • AND a meme!

    Very few fiction-writers break these rules. If they are Alice Munro (#3) or Toni Morrison (#2 every darn time), they even get away with it because they do it masterfully. Breaking the particular rule is their point. Most memoirists have something else in mind.

  • Anne Van Etten says:

    Starting a novel or memoir with a dramatic episode, say such as standing on a bridge contemplating suicide, is sometimes nothing but a cheap trick to “hook” a reader, who is then let down by the mundane boring story that follows. It may be a contemporary attitude and fear that readers are so busy that they lack the patience and interest to allow a story to unfold naturally, that is the reason for this “hook them” advice. Sometimes telling the story straight as the classic storytellers did works better. If the writing is really good it doesn’t matter much where you begin.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Great point – I think there’s two challenges there. One, that this advice is for writers at the manuscript stage, improving their work until they reach a stage where they work with professionals to improve it even more and get a book onto the shelf, in which case yes, absolutely beautiful writing might well be the hook.

      But the other challenge that strikes me is that when I first started teaching about compelling beginnings, I was surprised to take book after book off my shelf and find a “hook” on the first page, often in the first line. Some classic storytellers –

      Oh dude, you scared me! Don’t worry, I’m actually here because I saw a ghost. Shit, there it is again! And it looks like Hamlet’s dad!

      Hey, a new rich, single guy just moved in next door! Let’s see if we can unload one of our five daughters. Get over there and meet him now!

      Holy shit I just lost my hiking boot in the middle of nowhere! Hell, I’ll ditch the other one too. Guess I’m really doing this hike!

      So perhaps books seeming to begin wherever they feel like is because what feels formulaic and even forced to us as early-career writers seems effortless and intuitive in the hands of the greats.

      • Anne Van Etten says:

        Thank you for your insights and comment. I like the idea of climbing a mountain from the bottom up, rather than being dropped off by helicopter on the top and then work my way down. My memoir starts (for now) with a brief chapter featuring my aunt, whom I met when I was 74 and she was 84, talking about me and how she overheard her brothers talk about me in 1944, and I retell the story in her words. One teacher criticized this choice as the chapter is not directly about me, but, yes, I think it is, and it sets up the story of my finally finding my family 74 years later. Would you approve of this choice?

      • Allison K Williams says:

        I just read a manuscript opening that was a gathering of the memoirist’s female ancestors, showing how they might have related to each other, and it worked extremely well, so I agree that you don’t have to be present in that opening if it works for your story!

      • Thanks for this informative reply. Very good points.

        Hamid Modjtahed
        Modjtahedi sindi

      • Thanks for this informative reply. Very good points. As you have rightly said, those expert writers naturally acquire very interesting abilities and their writing become very well formulated .
        Hamid Modjtahed
        Modjtahedi sindi

  • Sharon Silver says:

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that unless your last name is [great writer’s name here], you should not assume a reader cares what you say just because it is you who says it. Catch ’em while you can. Good advice, Ms. Williams.

  • lgrizzo says:

    Great advice and an amusing analogy that makes it clear – from the very beginning!

  • […] Don’t Start at the Very Beginning […]

  • Anne Van Etten says:

    Dear Ms. Williams, Thank you so much for your note on a similar opening chapter. I feel much better about my first chapter now!

  • Rules of all kinds are designed to be broken and my own experience as a reader of fiction and nonfiction is that the books I end up lovng don’t grab me right away.( I’m thinking here of “The Transit of Venus” by Shirley Hazzard for one and
    George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo for another and Kiese Laymon’s memoir , Heavy, for a third ) .As I’m applying to agents I tend to dismiss those who say I want to fall in love with the first sentence and stuff like that.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Do you think there’s a difference between “I need time to develop my relationship with a story” and “doesn’t have a strong opening”? Because Heavy’s “I did not want to write to you. I wanted to write a lie.” and that rhythmic first page is an example I use all the time as a very strong opening – the combination of repetition and confession is a powerful hook. It’s a voice-driven opening rather than an action-driven opening, and I’d argue that it indeed plunges us immediately into Laymon’s identity and problem.

      • joellefraser says:

        I agree about the opening to “Heavy.” There’s something compelling about that intimacy and ambivalence. Reminds me of Melville’s classic “Call me Ishmael”: the intimacy and hint of unreliability…

  • Hello Alison, I always find your articles very much worth careful consideration. And clear and to the point! But this statement confuses me: “Have them list information they understand from those pages, like “they live in Chicago” or “her mother is an alcoholic.” Cut those things from the first 50 pages—if they’re clear now, they don’t need explaining earlier.” If it is essential to establish those facts in the first fifty pages, and the reader has understood, then why would I cut those from the first fifty pages? And what comes “earlier” that the first pages? Maybe I need coffee…

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Because if the reader understands it *without* reading the first 50 pages, then the information isn’t needed earlier – having it in the first 50 pages if it’s clear from context on page 55 is repetitive. Does that make sense? And I get this question every time I explain it – it’s a tricky concept!

  • Great and very interesting!
    Thanks for this post.
    Hamid Modjtahed
    modjtahedi aindi

  • I just read this again and it is more and more amazing whenevr I read it.
    Hamid Modjtahed (Modjtahedi Sindhi)

  • Cheryl Achterberg says:

    The first two mistakes listed are nothing new, but the third is a slick new addition. Concrete, actionable, well packaged. Your last paragraph is cute too. It made me smile. Thank you Allison!

    Cheryl Achterberg Link to my blog

  • […] “Starting at the very beginning, in memoir, essays or novels, is a very bad place to start.” So Allison K. Williams argues (and explains) on the Brevity blog. […]

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