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This month we have expert advice from Simon Whaley on the importance of a great beginning, Ten Top Tips looks at author websites and making them work for you. Student Successes are great, Inspiration is inspiring and Useful Websites are, well, really useful!

In the Beginning

By Simon Whaley

It is a truth universally acknowledged that over 98.276% of all first draft beginnings could be improved dramatically. Okay, I admit it. I made up that statistic, but as a writing tutor I frequently see beginnings that fail to grab the reader’s interest. Whether you’re writing an article, short story or a novel, the beginning has to hook your reader and draw them into your piece. If you don’t do it at the beginning, the reader won’t be bothered to find out what happens next. And don’t forget, the first reader who sees your work is an editor or publisher, so if your writing doesn’t grab them by the scruff of the neck it won’t get the opportunity to try again with any other readers. Here are five ways to strengthen your beginnings...

1. Cut the first two paragraphs

When we’re writing that first draft, it can take us a few sentences to get things sorted out in our head as to what it is we want to say. Even if we have planned an outline, those first few written phrases are merely us finding our way into our thoughts. I’ve read many short stories where writers begin with a description of their main character, or travel articles that begin with deciding what to pack in one’s suitcase. For first drafts, this isn’t a problem, but the editing process is where you need to take a closer look at what you’ve written. Does the opening sentence grab your attention? Is it held right to the end of the first paragraph? If not, drastic action is needed. Try cutting the first two paragraphs. Now start reading your piece. Quite often, paragraph three works brilliantly as your opening paragraph. Try it!

2. Use a startling statement

A great way to grab a reader’s attention is to begin with a startling statement. Look back at the first sentence of this piece: I said that 98.276% of all first draft beginnings could be improved dramatically. Admittedly, this isn’t a fact, but I used the technique to grab your attention. Here’s a real example of an opening sentence with a startling statement:

Babies born in the summer could have a sunnier disposition for life – and having a winter birthday might cast a cloud over your future happiness. (Take a Break magazine)

Any pregnant readers will be drawn into that piece, whilst everyone else will start thinking of all of their friends with summer birthdays, and those with winter birthdays, to see if it stacks up! Startling statements work by making the reader question whether they think it is true and encourages them to read on to find out more.

3. Use a quote

Dialogue adds life and interest to a piece of text, so this is a great way to start a piece. Here’s an example of an opening sentence where I used dialogue to open one of my published articles:

“I want Julia Bradbury’s bottom,” said the woman, as she puffed her way past me.

I went on to explain that the woman was a walker, who thought the television personality, Julia Bradbury, had a nice-looking bottom, and Julia had obviously achieved this by all the hillwalking she’d undertaken for a couple of BBC television series. This woman was trying to achieve the same result! Dialogue also works well for beginning fictional pieces too:

“It’s a good life, if you don’t weaken.” Every time my George utters those words, my resolve to kill him strengthens.

This was the opening to a short story I wrote, which was published in the UK and Australia. It was about a husband who said the same phrase every time his wife, who spent all day looking after him, wanted to stop for five minutes’ rest. It seemed appropriate to begin the story with these words, because it was the theme of the tale, and I also finished the story with this phrase too. Dialogue can make readers feel as though they are part of the scene.

4. Scene setting

Occasionally, the style of the publication prefers a scene-setting opening: one that asks the reader to paint a picture in their imagination. This technique is frequently used for travel pieces.

Rhythmically rocking from side to side, we’re suddenly pitched into darkness as the screech and clatter of bogies against rails assaults the ears and gritty smoke plumes into the carriage.

I used this opening sentence to draw readers into a feature about travelling on preserved steam railway lines. See how it sets the scene by using the senses – there’s the feeling of rocking from side to side, the loss of sight when we plunge into a tunnel, the noise heard by our ears of the wheels on the track and the gritty smoke entering the carriage and our nostrils. Using your senses in the opening sentence gives the reader much more to work with, in their imagination. It encourages them to draw upon their own experiences, which then makes them feel part of the piece.

5. Action!

Start when something exciting is happening.

“Keep bidding,” Dan Groves hissed forcefully to the man in the ill-fitting black jacket by his side. (The Judgement Book, by Simon Hall)

Here, this opening sentence thrusts the reader into the frenzied action of an auction. Notice too, how dialogue has been used to draw you in. What are they bidding for? Why is Dan insisting that the bidder continues bidding? Why does the bidder’s jacket not fit properly? Does the bidder actually want to bid for the item, or is he bidding on Dan’s behalf?

Immediately, this one sentence makes the reader ask many questions, forcing them to read on, to find out the answers. The writer has succeeded in grabbing their attention. Notice how we’re introduced to the scene in the middle of the auction. Not the start, where it is common for auctioneers to begin by explaining what the item is that people will be bidding for. Instead, the author starts when things are happening.

If you find writing beginnings difficult, then don’t worry about them. There’s no law that says you have to write the perfect beginning before you can move onto the main body of your piece. Just write anything that enables you to get started. But you must go back and perfect it afterwards. Sometimes, it’s not until you’ve finished writing the first draft that you realise what would work better at the beginning. There may be a great fact, or an unusual quote, which would work better. Whenever you start reading something new, spend a minute analysing the opening. Did it work? Did it make you want to read on? Why? What was it about the opening sentences that hooked you?

Beginnings are important. It’s worth investing time working on them. There’s no point having a fantastic middle and an earth-shattering ending, if the beginning fails to engage your reader. Without a decent beginning, you have no reader.

Simon Whaley is a tutor for the Writers Bureau, the author of ten books, hundreds of articles and dozens of short stories. His latest book, The Positively Productive Writer, published by Compass Books, gives advice to writers about how to reject rejection and enjoy positive steps to publication. For more information about Simon visit his website at www.simonwhaley.co.uk. He also offers tips and advice to writers on his blog, Simon Says!