Tuesday, 11 May 2010


When I started this blog, I intended it to be about writing and as anyone who drops by will know, writing posts hereabouts are few and far between. That is because I am good at waffling and not so good at getting on with what I should be getting on with.

So what could I say about writing that hasn’t already been said elsewhere – and much better – on other blogs? Truth is, nothing.

But I thought maybe I should try from time to time and where better to start than with beginnings?

I’ve heard it said that the beginning is the most important part of your story. I disagree. The beginning is a very important part, no doubt about that. Without a good one you’ll lose your reader pretty quickly.

I must admit I’m a beginnings tart. If I start to read a story or book by a new (to me) author and it doesn’t grab me fairly quickly, I give up. I may have said this before – life is too short and there are too many great books around to waste time reading one that doesn’t do anything for me.

But no matter how wonderful the beginning, how seduced you are by the opening lines, if the story sags in the middle and if the ending doesn’t satisfy, the beginning becomes meaningless.

A week or so ago I read a novel (by a well known author) in which the writer had deliberately misled her reader, adding elements to the plot which were only there to deceive.

I’ve nothing against plot twists and turns, in fact I like being surprised, but I do not care for deception.

The book I’m talking about was a whodunit. The characters were all so alike that I had to keep reading back to remember who was who.

One of the major “clues” which was referred to repeatedly throughout the book pointed to a particular person as being the murderer and on the last page it was dismissed as being of no significance.

Why did I keep reading it? Because the beginning hooked me and I wanted to know what happened. By the time I got to the end, I was so fed up I didn’t give a toss. Will I buy any more of that lady’s books? No.

So beginnings. The be all and end all? No. Important? Vitally.

A beginning is so much more than a single sentence, but here are some I’ve taken from my shelves. I ran my finger along with my eyes shut and poked four – and here they are (the Alan Bennett one being from a book of short stories so I chose the beginning I liked best) but otherwise – random.

On the many occasions Midgley had killed his father, death had always come easily. He died promptly, painlessly and without a struggle. Looking back, Midgley could see that even in these imagined deaths he had failed his father. It was not like him to die like that. Nor did he.
Father! Father! Burning Bright – Alan Bennett.

“What have you done with Fred’s hands?”
I pushed her gently away from me, to lift her left buttock about an inch or so, and polished it with the loofah.
“They’re on the radiator in the kitchen.”
Diana’s Story – Deric Longden.

I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way.
The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan.

What did you ask, Andy Bissette?
Do I ‘understand these rights as you’ve explained em to me’?
Gorry! What makes some men so numb?
Dolores Claiborne – Stephen King.

Do any of those make you want to read further? Why? If you don’t, why not?

I read for pleasure. I find it very difficult to analyse why I like or dislike something. I like all the above beginnings and probably the Deric Longden one best. His books are the ones in this house most likely to fall apart from having been read so many times.

But I should really stick to talking about fiction. Trouble is I couldn’t tell you how to write a good beginning – I wouldn’t know where to start. A lot depends on the kind of story you’re trying to write.

You might not write your beginning until later. You may find your beginning somewhere in the middle of your story. If you think you’ve written an excellent first line, but it happens to have come in the middle of the story/chapter/whatever – move it. You have the power.

A beginning should promise, invite, excite, frighten, crook its finger, wink . . . well you name it, but it should do something to your reader. If it winks, it’s saying “Come on in, let me tell you something.” If it excites, “You’ll have to come with me if you want to know what happens next, but I promise to keep you on the edge of your seat.”

So there you have it, more waffle from me which has probably left you at this stage wondering why on earth you bothered reading it.

I shall now go back to waiting for the phone to ring.


  1. I do so agree, Teresa.

    Beginnings are important, but at least if they don't grab you you haven't wasted your time reading the book! Weak endings are such a disappointment - and pretty prevalent, in my view.

    I hope your phone rings soon - and with good news on whatever you are waiting for.

  2. I enjoy writing beginnings, when I'm all full of enthusiasm for my story. And endings are also satisfying to write. But today I am struggling with a flat middle!

    Hope you hear your news soon. x

  3. Yes I'd agree with that, Bernadette. Some very unsatisfactory endings around.

    Those middles can be pesky Joanne - I'm suffering with a saggy bottom, but that's got nothing to do with writing :-)

    The phone call could come anytime in the next 3 weeks when my daughter in law is due to give birth - I've got my bag packed and every time the phone rings I jump. I think the poor lass would like it to be soon!

  4. You're so right Teresa. A good beginning does set the tone for the whole story. It's a type of magic when a writer manages to sustain your interest in the story/novel and there's nothing more satisfying for the reader that coming across a story that leaves you begging for more at the end.

  5. I'm a beginnings tart too! I think the beginning should give a few clues as to the style of the story - so it can act as a warning as well as an enticement.

  6. I love beginnings - even more first lines! Actually I pick my books my them. I might read the blurb but I'll usually read the first paragraph. If it starts by describing the leaves on every tree it's going back on the shelf ;)

  7. Several things draw me into reading a book - the cover, the blurb, the opening paragraph. But I've still been fooled into sticking with a story only to be disappointed right on the final page. As you say - you learn not to buy that author again.
    As for your waffle. As a regular reader of your short stories (and collector of many rejection letters) I look forward to learning from your advice and opinions. So please keep writing about writing.

  8. I agree, life's far too short to read something that doesn't grab straight away. I've given up on quite a few books recently - the older I get the less tolerant I seem to be.

    Great post, Teresa, and I agree with Keith - please keep writing about writing (and everything else). And I've a spot dusted on my keepers' shelf ready for when you decide to publish your advice in book form.


  9. Thank you, David – I overflow with admiration for those writers who sustain interest to the end and leave you wanting more. Such books are a joy to read.

    I wish I’d thought of that point, Patsy – but you’re right, the beginning does (or should) set the style and let you know what you’re in for.

    I’m usually attracted by the blurb, Lacey, but I read the first page as well before making a final decision and I’m with you about the leaves on every tree!

    What a kind and generous thing to say, Keith – but you really shouldn’t encourage me with my waffling! I hope you don’t keep those rejection letters (unless they offer constructive advice and encouragement). I used to keep all mine and even at first to look forward to them – feeling that while I was getting them at least I knew I was trying.

    Me too, Suzanne – I have become extremely intolerant with age. And you’re encouraging me as well, thank you :-) And bless you for keeping a space for me on your shelf, what a lovely thing to say x

  10. Teresa

    Oooh! Deric Longden - I love his books. The first one I read was The Cat Who Came in from the Cold. I was living in London at the time and used to read on the tube. The book had me crying my eyes out with laughter, so much so that one of my fellow passengers tapped me on the shoulder and asked me what I was readiing because she had to get it too. Any author who can break the commuter silence barrier has got it as far as I am concerned.

    I was lucky enough to meet Deric at a Writers News House party and I must say he is such a lovely, lovely man.

    I've been reading quite a few of your stories too Teresa in Take a Break Fiction Feast and Woman's Weekly and they have been a real treat. Thank you.


  11. I think a good beginning is vital in order to hook the reader, but oddly enough I always write my last paragraph first, before touching the rest of the book, so I have something to work towards!

  12. Linda - I am so jealous that you've met him. I've been told before that he's every bit as lovely and warm as you'd expect. His books really are something special aren't they. I don't know any other writer who can make me laugh one minute and cry the next the way he does. And thank you for the rest of your comment :-)

    That's very interesting, Hydra, writing the end first. Perhaps I should try doing that as I have little trouble starting things but often end up getting lost somewhere along the way.

  13. Beginnings are vital to hook the reader but I often find mine in the middle of writing a story: I'm half way through and I think "this is where it should be starting, you clot!". I too, often write my last sentence first, but maybe that's because in short stories it's so important to make the ending satisfying, isn't it? In most cases I find the ending a lot easier to write than the beginning.x

  14. I honestly think that except for genre novels (which have certain conventions of structure) and the most blatantly commercial novels, the importance given to the beginning is vastly overrated. I don't really need to be "hooked" into a story by the first 10 pages. I'm quite willing to invest my time and attention in a work and wait for my appreciation to develop for it. I've been 50 to 100 pages into some novels before I felt real interest in them. And then they blossomed into worthwhile works.

    The idea that if I'm not "hooked" right away makes me worry that many really good works will be overlooked or missed altogether. I suppose it is a result of our "sound bite" culture and shortening attention spans. Even so, I'd be willing to venture the notion that if a book has to rely on a hook at the outset, it may not be a work worth reading.

  15. I'm the opposite Lydia - I find beginnings so much easier than endings.

    Excellent point Paul - I have recommended books to people with the words "Don't be put off by the beginning - it gets better." But I still think you just know, you can feel, when a book is worth sticking with and the obvious "hook" such as in the example I cited can be a deceptive device - as you say, it didn't make the rest of the book worth reading.

  16. Sometimes I have to go back and make my beginnings stronger, but occasionally I think of a really good opening line and the rest of the story just follows. Confusing really.

    The Stephen King one didn't hook me at all, but I loved the rest of the book!

  17. Me too, Karen. I love it when you think of an opening line to start with - but I also love it when you're in a story and a better beginning comes to you.

    That's one of my favourite Stephen King books. I remember the first time I read it being completely consumed by it.