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.
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 Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the editor of books published by Penguin Random House, Mantle, Knopf, Hachette and many more. Not completely appalled by her editing style? Find out about Project Novel, an MFA year crammed into eight weeks. Or just join the mailing list.