Beginnings would be easy if…

…they weren’t so hard

I usually breeze through opening pages, and it was no exception with Fast Lane. I think it’s because I don’t write something unless I have what I believe is a winning premise and a clear idea where the story should go. Setting up the action, introducing the characters, establishing a tone…it’s all very exciting. The first several pages seem not to flow, but to gush forth.

And then, bam! The time comes to write everything after the opening, which is to say ninety, ninety-five percent of the piece. The gusher slows to a trickle. Every day the plot and the characters bash against rocks, swirl in eddies and get stuck behind dams that redirect the flow into tributaries out of the main channel. The trick is to get back on course and make it look natural in the process. You can trim the sails or drag an oar in from time to time, but if the readers notice, it will seem forced and untrue.

If writing a book were a marriage, this would be after the honeymoon, the part about which people say, “It takes hard work to make a relationship successful.”

And then, there is apparently no good way to start a story. If you write a page and a half of back story near the front, someone will tell you that’s way too much. If you cut back on the back story, someone will complain about having no idea who your characters are or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Here’s my take: The opening can’t do everything. And why should it? It’s not everything. It’s only 1 or 4 or 10 percent of the whole. Two things I think an opening can’t do:

• Reveal all there is to know about the main character. You don’t know everything there is to know about someone the moment you meet them. You find out stuff along the way—including interesting stuff, stuff you like and stuff you don’t like. Isn’t learning about a character—and sometimes being a little surprised—part of the fun of reading a book or watching a movie?

• Reveal the exact course of the story. I mean, really. You can guess in the opening moments of “Romancing the Stone” that Kathleen Turner is going to go an adventure, but what adventure? And how many directions could a book go that opens with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”?

As it turns out, the easiest part to write, the opening, is the part that gets picked apart the most. Yet it’s the middle that seems to be the most arduous for the writer. Screenwriters even refer to the middle as “the second act desert.”

As Fast Lane opens, the heroine, Lara Dixon, is pitching her expose to a publisher, justifying the project by making a broad-strokes argument about why the king of Fast Lane’s empire of pleasure, Clay Creighton, needs to be taken down. Some back story is woven into the dialog. But how much about Clay do readers really need to know at this point? About Fast Lane? About Lara? Some of my readers say more than I have, others say less.

And so I go back into the first two pages with the challenge of trying to please everyone by using fewer words to say more.

1 thought on “Beginnings would be easy if…”

  1. Yes, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth" may be the most intimidating opening line ever. Next, I expect to read: "Then God got writer's block and sat staring at his computer for days on end."


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