Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where to Start? Screenwriting Tips for Novels

"You only like the beginnings of things." (Hey wow, a Mad Men reference in January. If you missed my recaps of the past two seasons, I put them on ice. With booze.) Dr. Faye's parting shot to Don Draper in the season finale last year was both snide and perceptive, and I've been thinking about beginnings a lot lately, because I always struggle to decide how my novel should start.

Beginnings set the tone of the whole story, of course, and they're inevitably the portion of the manuscript that gets edited, moved around, and generally futzed with most, because every time I open my document to write, the beginning is there, staring at me accusingly, saying, "But don't you want to make me perfect before you continue?"

For screenwriting, I was taught to ask, "What's your inciting incident?", meaning, what comes along very early on to propel your main character to action? Since a page of script corresponds with a minute of screen time, you have about 15 minutes to set up A) the main character's world and normal, everyday life and B) knock both of those off-kilter.

With books, it has to happen even faster.

Yet somehow I manage to forget this fact when I start a new project. I want to introduce my characters, rather then get them moving and reveal who they are through action.

I got 12 pages done on my new YA novel this week before realizing it was NOT the right beginning. The pages weren't a waste, though -- they gave me some fun dialogue to insert later, and taught me things about the characters that I wouldn't otherwise have known. I set the document aside, started fresh, and placed the inciting incident on page 2, which helped get the story off to a faster, cleaner start. Will it stick? Who knows, but it feels right at the moment, like elements are aligning properly.

Do you ever scrap your beginnings and start over? How do you decide which scene should kick off your novel?


  1. Do I ever scrap my beginnings and start over? Um, do I have 15 different versions of the beginning of my current manuscript? It's tricky. I recall Zadie Smith in an interview one time saying that she spends 80% of her time on getting the beginning right. Now, that seems extreme, but even despite efforts (and maybe even because of them!) I still feel mine can be better.

    Great topic.

  2. Thanks, Kristen! Ugh, yes. Beginnings. So tricky, so elusive. It really does set the mental tone for the writer, and if the beginning doesn't feel as close to right as possible, it's so difficult to work on the rest of the story.

  3. The file name for the first completed draft of my upcoming novel was "Alternate Beginning" because I went back after writing about three chapters and started in a completely different place and it WORKED so much better. The first ms I wrote has so many different first chapters that it confuses me! I think that the firs chapter needs to be written last. I guess the lesson is don't be afraid to move on and come back to the first chapter later.

  4. I also just labeled a file "alternate beginning"! Hilarious! One of my recent projects went through three or four different first chapters, too. It's tricky.

  5. I expect that when I finish this draft, I'll be rewriting the first 3-4 chapters. An author I spoke to late last year (Gail Bowen) said that she often will rewrite her first chapter or two upwards of 18 times before she feels she gets it right.

  6. Hi Alyssa, thanks so much for commenting! So 18 is the magic number, eh? I guess I've got 17 more to go :) How long until you finish your draft, do you think?