What’s the best point in the story to begin a book? I’ve gone through some rigorous writing exercises recently trying to figure that one out for myself! After three false starts, I think I’ve got it nailed down for my work in progress. (Fingers crossed.)
With this in mind, I thought it might be fun to do a little writing exercise today on Chicks. Readers, as well as authors, can play along. You don’t have to put anything on paper!
Below is an opening scene (not my WIP, by the way):
Margo walked through the living room carrying a suitcase. Rising from his chair, her husband said, “Where are you going?” She opened the front door, set her suitcase on the front porch and turned to face him. “I’m leaving you, Howard.”
“Margo, how can you leave me after thirty years of marriage?”
She pulled off her wedding band and flung it at him. “Goodbye, Howard.” Margo picked up her suitcase, jumped into her Mercedes convertible and pulled out of the driveway, tires squealing as she hit the road.
Whose scene is this? I think we’d all agree it’s Margo’s scene. She’s the active party. She’s the one who’s going somewhere, literally in this case.
Does this scene lack power because of missing backstory? Feel free to disagree, this is an exercise, after all. But, my take is that we can work in information about how things got to this point later in the story. Starting with backstory could lose the reader. (By the way, I think it’s important to start the story with Margo, the protagonist. I knew a writer who liked to say, “Readers are like ducks. They imprint on the first person they meet in a book.” I think there’s some truth to that, though there are always exceptions.)
The story has opened at a pivotal moment in the main character’s life: the end of her marriage. A moment of major change is often a good place to start a story.
While the opening scene here is pretty barebones, we actually learn more about this couple than it might appear at first glance. We know the marriage is over. The fact that Margo throws away her wedding band tells us she’s not just going home to mother for a few days. We know nothing about the couple’s jobs or house, but Margo driving a Mercedes suggests some wealth.
What questions does this short scene bring to the reader’s mind? Who do we care most about in the scene? (Again, your thoughts may vary.) As for me, I don’t like Howard very much. All he says is “How could you leave me after thirty years of marriage?” There’s no “Margo, please don’t go.” “Margo, let’s talk about this.” “Margo, I love you.” Mostly, I’m thinking, “Howard, WHAT have you done to cause Margo to leave you after sticking with you for thirty years?” And I’m not really wondering what Howard is going to do now. I’m wondering, “Where is Margo going? What’s next for her?”
What is the whole point of a book’s opening? This is a rhetorical question. We all know the most important thing is to draw readers into the story and make them want to keep turning pages. If you’re still reading this, either our little scene made you care enough to keep reading — or you just love me. I’ll take it, either way!
Now, here’s where you can jump into this exercise. What do you think should happen in this story? I’ll give you a prompt here to help you decide: When Margo walks out on Howard carrying a suitcase, the reader likely assumes it is packed with her clothes and toiletries. But, I’m telling you that Margo’s clothes are NOT what’s inside that suitcase. Plot twist!
In the comments, tell us what YOU think is in Margo’s suitcase. This will influence the direction of the story. There are no right or wrong answers. OR, name a book you love for the way it starts — or for its killer plot twist! (No spoilers, please.)