The ‘Big Bang’ of writing has absolutely nothing to do with evolution. It has everything to do with the ‘hook’ of the story. It’s commonly said in order to hook in your readers and captivate them, you must use the ‘shock and awe’ approach. In other words, start with something drastic and loud. This could be a lightning strike, a gunshot, a scream, a crash, or simply absolute chaos. Is this wrong? No, but there are two aspects to this kind of beginning which makes it unfavorable. For one, the action might not be where the story begins, so you might have a prologue or have a story that begins after the first chapter with “12 hours earlier.” Or, due to its tendency toward chaos, this also leads to confusion, and confusion at the beginning of a story is incredibly delicate.
Sometimes the real beginning of a story can be rather boring. It could be two people meeting in a coffee shop just having a chat, but you’ve been told to ‘start with a bang’ in order to hook in your readers, haven’t you? And you know that there’s an event far in the past that is much more intriguing than a simple conversation, so you might opt for a prologue to explore that. Of course, this isn’t the only use of prologues, which I will discuss in more detail next week, but this is one reason people might include such a thing in their story. And this, honestly, is a very poor reason. You can do better.
Now, say the story begins with the seemingly ordinary conversation in the coffee shop, but you know later on in the story the girl who is meeting with her friend there will be kidnapped from her own home later that night. Now, that’s much more interesting, isn’t it? So, you may be tempted to begin the story with her walking into her house at night, hollering, “Mom, I’m home!” No answer, so she continues calling out until she notices the backdoor in the darkened living room is slightly ajar. Going into the room (without turning on the light), she creeps forward, watching for someone or something out the window. Then from behind her, someone grabs her, clamping his hand over her mouth, and pulling her back into the darkness as her screams are muffled. And then you have “12 hours earlier.”
Every time I see this “12 hours earlier” I feel cheated in a way because it’s not natural for us to time travel. Yes, there are times when this is best for the story and really the only way to begin it. However, most of the time, it’s done just because the writer really wants to capture the reader’s attention, and this is a cheap solution. In that regard, I challenge you not to use this method but to find another way to hook in your audience.
Another way someone might begin a story is without a prologue and without skipping into the future briefly but starting the actual story at an eventful moment. For example, a character is being chased. This is an intense scene with lots of uncertainty. The readers are thrown into this without any knowledge as to where they are, when they are, and what exactly is happening and to whom it is happening. They have no details to go on, so they’re putting full trust in the author to masterfully handle the scene. The problem is, action-pack scenes—in and of themselves—are always difficult to write (regardless where in the story they’re located). Most people struggle writing something like a chase scene. It’s just hard. So, why would you want to make such a scene the opening of your book?
Let me put it this way, say you’ve never been in a fire, but the beginning of the story your character is trying to rescue people from a fire. This is a very intense setting, and there’s a lot that can be uncertain. You must use the full strength of your imagination to make the scene real. If you are at all unconfident about any element in the scene (as in having a complete, vivid mental image of the setting and how the character moves through the environment and reacts to the fire), then it will show in the writing. Yes, these scenes are loaded with confusion, but when the reader has a hard time envisioning what is happening and who the characters are and what is exactly at stake, it’s not as captivating as most people might think.
When a reader opens your book, you are asking him to invest his time into the story, and there are only so many hours in a day. So is beginning your story with confusion and uncertainty really a good idea? The reader hasn’t even had time to grow attached to the character, so he won’t care what happens.
Is it wrong to begin a story with such an action-packed, completely confusing scene? No—of course not. If that’s the best way for your story to begin, then do it. However, if the only reason that is your beginning is because you’ve heard the advice, “Begin with a bang,” then I would challenge you to review that scene and determine if it is really where the story begins.
It is okay to begin with a slow scene because it is all in the presentation of the scene which snatches the reader’s attention. Do you recall that scene I mentioned of ordinary conversation between two friends in a coffee shop? Sure, it has the potential of being boring—especially if you keep it completely ordinary—but how can you use such a scene to hook in a reader? Dangle a slight mystery in front of the reader.
Her iPhone buzzed again, and though Judith knew who was texting her, she still lifted her phone to see part of a text message displayed which read, “I know what you’re doing. I’m asking you, please, reconsider. Don’t…” That was all the preview of the message showed, and Judith wasn’t interested in reading the rest.
Instead, she set it facedown once more on the small table where she sat near the window in this small town coffee shop. She drummed her fingers. Lillian was late. She was always late. The one time Judith needed her best friend the most, couldn’t she just show up on time?
The chime above the door behind her sounded, and Judith let out a sigh then turned to greet Lillian, but the smile on her face froze when she realized it wasn’t Lillian. It was him. Even now, her mind went blank on his name though she was sure he had told her at one point.
However, he didn’t look at her but headed straight for the counter to order his coffee. Judith spun back around to keep her back toward him. Maybe he hadn’t seen her. Maybe she could slip away before he noticed her, but she wagged her head. He knew she was here. He knew that when he sent her that text message, and she shot a glare over her shoulder only to find him meandering the merchandise near the counter.
As if feeling her stare on him, he looked at her then smirked.
She quickly looked away just as the door chimed again.
“Judith! I’m so sorry I’m late!” Lillian hastened around the table to sit across from her friend, and she dropped her purse on the floor. “Are you okay? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she answered quicker than she preferred, but then Judith paused and considered her friend…
And the scene would continue with the mysterious man lingering about and Judith fully aware of his presence, but she also knows that he is hoping his mere presence will keep her from telling Lillian her real reason for meeting with her. However, Judith is unconventional. She would likely couch her words with her friend to show this guy that he doesn’t control her.
So, in order to hook in your readers, do you have to begin with a ‘bang’? No. They say ‘hook them in’, and most people (some red neck fellas aside) don’t fish with shotguns. Rather it’s a skill that must be crafted, and this requires patience and trust in your approach. Sure, your story might require an abrupt beginning, but on the other hand, that might not be the best beginning for your story. So, when you’re trying to decide how to start your story, and if you have a ‘shock and awe’ approach, ask yourself why you’re using that method. Again, it’s not a bad method, but if your reason is at all based on “Because they always say begin with a bang!” then reconsider it. I know you can do better.
Next week, we’ll focus on prologues.