The Breadcrumbs At The Beginning Of The Story


I went to a really great writer’s conference in the Mythical Lands of Canada (the MLC) last week, the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. And, while there, I did these so-called “blue pencil” sessions, where I read the first few pages of a writer’s manuscript and they sit across from me, watching my face and trembling as I sharpen my knives on their shoddy craftsmanship. Except, a couple of things happened: first, I had no blue pencil, so I had to instead try to mark-up their manuscript with the blood of the innocent but of course blood isn’t blue but red so that’s disappointing; second, I did not encounter any shoddy craftsmanship. The attendees of this particular conference were operating at a higher level than I had reckoned — which is great!

That said, I found one common thread — a singular critique — that I was able to apply to each and every manuscript I encountered. That common critique is about beginning your story. Given that this month is the vaunted-slash-dreaded NaNoWriMo, a post on beginning your tale thus seemed to be appropriately fortuitous.

So, here’s the truth:

You’re probably fucking up the beginning of your story.

And the beginning of your story is the most vital part. The start of a story carries an undue burden. Imagine that your story is a pack mule, except that it is the animal’s forehead — or even it’s dopey muzzle — that is expected to carry the load. All that burden is shoved to the front of the beast, and so it is with your story.

Sure, sure, Patience is a virtue. Blah blah blah.

It is also not a virtue many readers — including myself — possess anymore.

Reason? We have scads upon plethoras upon cornucopias of entertainment choices available to us. Games, movies, television, cupcakes, religion, politics, porn whatever. Even inside the realm of books (how wonderful does that sound? A WHOLE REALM OF BOOKS) it’s not like our choices are thin on the ground. One book sucks? Ten more will gladly fill its space, barfed up by the giant book-regurgitating monster known as The Publishing Industry.

I am brutal when I read the first page of a new story.

My patience is literally that long — as long as one page. This is not a bomb with a trailing fuse, folks. This fuse is about the length of a human thumb — a short fizzle and a fast detonation. That detonation sounds less like an explosion and more like me going, NOPE, then pitching the book over my shoulder into the dumpster I always keep immediately behind me. (This is awkward when I realize that yet again I have thrown my iPad away because I was reading an e-book.)

So, by this point, I have probably exhausted your own patience by putting such a long lead on this post, but hey, screw it, this blog is free. HAPPY TO REFUND YOUR MONEY, MISTER COMPLAINYPANTS. *makes it rain with Monopoly money thrown at your head*

Ahem.

What I mean is, you’re probably asking:

So, how exactly am I fucking up the beginning of my story?

I will not count the ways.

But rather, I will offer you a metaphor that hopefully will clarify the work that the beginning of your book must do, and further will hopefully obviate the sins you have committed. You monster.

It’s like this:

You, the writer, are leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

You are walking backward from the reader, trying to get the reader to creep toward you.

You never quite want them to catch you.

Instead, you want them to follow you through the dark forest — this tangled labyrinth — that is your novel, your story, the architecture of the tale you’re trying to tell.

If you leave too many breadcrumbs — meaning, you just dump a cup of them on the ground — the reader will stop right there. They’ll hover over the spot like a starving duck and they’ll just peck at the ground. Which sounds fine (hey, the reader is fed and fat and happy, quack quack), but it means the reader isn’t progressing. A fat belly means a bored duck.

If you leave too few breadcrumbs — meaning, you space them out too far apart, you’re too spare with these little crusty boulders of secret delight — then the reader will follow along but suddenly get lost. In the dark forest they will not be able to see the next breadcrumb. They will then spin around in the shadows, looking for a way forward, and they will not find one. Confused and lonely, they will most likely be eaten by a grue.

In both instances, the reader will put down the book.

(Always assume that the reader is looking for a reason to go do something else. They want to put down your book and go read another one. Or go eat some Cheezits or play a video game or go fuck a houseplant — whatever leisure time activity one prefers when nobody else is watching.)

It is your job to entice the reader forward. To tease and tantalize — story is, in this way, a kind of seduction. (And here I note that breadcrumbs are about the least tantalizing thing in the world, and if someone were to try to seduce me with breadcrumbs I’d probably grumpily urinate on the ground like an offended bear and go trundling off in the other direction. So perhaps this metaphor is better if we imagine Elliott trying to urge E.T. forward with a trail of Reese’s Pieces. Me, I’d probably follow a trail of little bourbon bottles, but I’d get too drunk by the middle of the forest and would probably end up sleeping in the woods, soiled in my own tears and whiskey-sweat. This digression has gone on long enough, I suspect, so we’ll just stick with “breadcrumbs.”)

You’re trying to ensure that the reader is interested in taking the next step, but never precisely satisfied when she gets there. You want the reader to want more. To need more. To continue following you into the maze, driven by the hunger you have stoked.

Now, later on in the book, you can start changing your pace. You can move more quickly, or more slowly, expecting the reader to keep up. You can leave more breadcrumbs here, and fewer there — because by then, the reader is already in the maze. They’re invested in the untangling of the narrative. With a good, balanced opening, you are literally buying story credit that you can spend later on riskier, bolder maneuvers inside the tale. (Though even there, you can overspend — but that is a conversation for another day.)

So, practically speaking, what are these breadcrumbs?

What are their narrative equivalent?

Assume that they’re shaped like little question marks and exclamation points.

Question marks are, as noted, questions — who is this person? What is wrong? Is this a conspiracy? Who are those strange creatures? What is that robot doing to that chicken? As I am wont to say: the question mark is shaped like a hook for a reason. Set the hook right and it embeds in the cheek of the reader and pulls her along.

But a story — particularly the opening — can’t just be questions. It’s not a fucking interview or an essay test. You also have to balance it out with answers, because answers lend us context. Except here, the answers cannot be wishy-washy. The context given cannot be soft-hearted. Answers must be bold, compelling, interesting. This is why they are exclamation points rather than question marks — you’re excitedly declaring things! This is sturm and drang — truth and consequence. Someone dies! An explosion! Doom! Event! Not mere happenstance or coincidence but holy shitcookies, look at this thing and this other thing and that robot and that chicken!

Exposition is too talky. It gives away too much. It’s why we cannot begin a story with backstory, or with explanation — it’s all answers, and it’s all milquetoast.

But we also cannot begin with a void of context, either, because then we’re lost.

Too many breadcrumbs.

Or too few.

We entice with mystery, conflict, drama. Every compelling character is a breadcrumb. So are the actions of those characters. Great writing is a breadcrumb all its own (though not nearly enough of one). On page one I should be seeing the willingness to have things happen and to ask questions. Set the hook with mystery. Reel it in with great event driven by strong characters.

What’s your seduction? How will you compel readers forward? What will seduce them on page one to read to page ten, and then to 20, and then to 50, 100, and all the way to the end?

How will you get readers lost in the maze of your fiction?


63 responses to “The Breadcrumbs At The Beginning Of The Story”

  1. Absolute gold. Long winded, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Any time one of my crit partners tries to defend their lengthy expositions (even in the beginning or not!) I am going to point them to this post!

  2. Nice article. I have a question, Chuck. Is it wise to start a novel with a prologue? A prologue that gives a brief introduction to the main characters- through an interesting action sequence? And then introduce the conflict from the first chapter on?

    • Prologues get a lot of hate because they’re prologues, but really they get a lot of hate because they’re so frequently poorly-done.

      For my mileage, they work about 25% of the time, maybe less.

      What you’re describing sounds better to fold the introduction and action into the conflict of the first chapter. But YMMV!

      — c.

  3. This is truth. I think we do this in the beginning because of insecurity about our world-building — we’re not really telling the reader all this exposition, we’re telling ourselves. (Okay, not everyone may do it for this reason, but *I* did.) Even now, I look back at my work and am not always happy with how I hit the beginning. Learning process and all that.

    But still, I think most writers could do a lot worse than to finish a first draft and then ask themselves, “Now how do I *really* want to start this book?”

  4. The balance of dramatic questionss asked (?) to those answered (!) is really big for me, especially when critiquing or reading submissions. It can be tricky to judge, since different readers vary in terms of how many ?s they can hold in their mental overhead storage space.

    And different readers can store different types of ? more or less eagerly than others – some readers will happily gobble up Proper Nouns From Fantasyland, others will bounce after the third Apo’tstr’op’he.

  5. If you start a story in the middle of an action (in medias res) that is interesting enough to want the reader to see what the next action will be and so forth you lure them into the maze. A screaming comes across the sky. Nobody could sleep. The first sentence needs to lure them and hold them.

    • The only issue with in media res (which I like!) is that a lot of authors jump in with all ? and no ! — meaning, no sense of context, or placement, or anything resembling a rope to hold onto. It’s just, BOOM HERE YOU’RE IN THE THICK OF IT NOW and then it’s a case of too few breadcrumbs. Meaning, readers get lost.

      • This is right on, readers get confused if it’s all show/action and no tell at the beginning, if the context is missing, especially if we’re in a slightly altered world. I’ve had a few comments on the opening of my book for this reason, thankfully mostly encouraging other readers to stick with it. But then it’s weird because TV series seem to get away with being as obscure and baffling as possible but watchers seem to accept the challenge, maybe they’re getting more clues visually.

  6. I enjoyed this article. Very interesting and never had it put so bluntly. LOL. I always look for seasoned authors to explain how I’m screwing up and you did just that. If you’re not, then your not learning. Thanks for all of your suggestions. Bryce Evans

  7. As is the case with all great advice, upon reading this I think, “well, duh, obviously,” and then realize that it’s advice I desperately need even though I guess I already “knew” it. You’ve made me pretty sure I need to swap my second and first chapters around. Thanks!

  8. Much truth in this post. I think I’ve re-done the first scene of my WiP at least 6 times, and it’s still not right, but I am getting closer to what should be there, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

    And Chuck, regarding these entries, do you just fling them from your fingertips and walk away? I ask because you have that uncommon ability to sound flippant/funny/intelligent all at once and I am hoping (and by hoping I mean trying not to seethe with jealousy) there are at least a few revisions before you’re satisfied.

  9. I have rewritten the beginning of my book so many times. It’s fast-paced, but I need to hook the reader into taking a wild ride even if they don’t like roller coasters. The latest criticism came from an agent who needed an emotional connection with my character, so I’ve rewritten it another four times. I’ll find out if this version is “The One,” this afternoon when I throw it at a writing coach’s wall to see if the sticky goo I’ve applied does the job.

  10. Well this is odd…over the weekend, I just had an editor send me back a critique of the opening chapters from my first novel. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she enjoyed it and thought it was well written, but my opening was too boring. It wouldn’t hook the reader into the meat of the story quickly enough.

    So yeah, this kind of hits home 🙂

  11. Love the frankness of this article! I, too, have re-written my opening numerous times, including deleting a worthless prologue and a whole chapter of “explanation” that I was able to boil down into one concise sentence. Thanks for the great advice!

  12. My writing mentor was fond of taking a sharpie and reading a manuscript. Usually, about 5-10+ pages in, she’d mark a big arrow on the page, then write in “Your Story Starts Here”.

  13. My last novel I took the approach that each chapter needed to nearly stand alone as its own piece of flash fiction. (you probably stopped reading this comment since the beginning sucked)

  14. I’m doing NaNo and I realized that I wrote my opening chapter last night. So thanks for this article because it was like lightning. Never mind that I’d already written over 6000 words. But it’s really not a problem; that’s what December editing is for. I wanted to use a different opening anyway.

  15. Ok, I’ve been shot out of the saddle, even before getting out of the barn. Do 50, 000 words count if they are do overs with the fist couple of pages? Should I keep going full pen ahead or write the equivalent of ‘War and Peace’ in word count alone on my intro.?
    Yours Truly, Depressed in Munich, Germany.
    Oh, wait! There is a Biergarten right across the street! I will follow my breadcrumbs.

    • The goal isn’t necessarily to GET IT RIGHT RIGHT NOW NOW NOW NOW, but rather, something to keep in mind as you move forward through the draft — and something to aspire to when you go back and (inevitably!) edit.

    • Sally, don’t despair. I’m currently squirreling through draft two of my sci-fi novel, and even though I’m telling the same story, it’s so radically different in style, pace and – well, just about everything EXCEPT the story – from my draft one that you’d think the two versions were written by completely different people. It’s as if Draft One was “Hey, here’s my story!” and Draft Two is “Umm… here’s what I actually meant the first time around – please just pretend you never saw that other one…” **whistles evasively**

      And I aint nowhere near done revising yet – there ARE gonna be Draft Two-pluses (in fact, if I’m honest, for some chapters there already have been.) This is all completely normal – not just for me, but for gazillion-trillions of writers out there. There’s no shame in taking as many goes as you want to get your baby just right – and the wisdom concensus is that draft ones are actually SUPPOSED to suck like a Dyson. If you’re still ploughing ahead even while you’re agonizing over what you’ve already written, you’re doing great.

      I’d say keep on going ’til you hit ‘The End’ and then look back at the whole thing – it’s much easier to get a handle on the big things that way (i.e.theme, plot, pacing, character/story arcs.) Draft One is your freewheeling-down-the-hill-with-only-your-feet-for-brakes-oh-what-the-hell-who-needs-brakes-anyway time. There are no rules for Draft One. So keep going and don’t worry about what might be ‘wrong’ with what you’ve already written. You can fix that later. As many times as you want. 🙂

  16. Working on the start of a novel right now, and this is exactly what I needed. A good kick in the pants. 🙂 But I think it’s also helping me realize… I’m not sure that catch, that bread trail can necessarily come in the first or even second draft, but something we come back to when we understand everything else that follows, so we can rearrange the path to entice the reader properly.

  17. I like this, it set me to easy about my story. the start dips from mystery, happiness, death, and then up again. However i do have a question?

    What would your advice be on a prologue?
    Mine takes place away from the main characters and story giving a snipet of the antagonist, who at the time we will know nothing about and i doupt he will come into the first book.

    I love the idea of him and his story, as well as his appearance forshadowing the future but i am curious on your thoughts?

  18. The way you started Blackbirds is a stellar example of what to do, Chuck. We’re immediately thrown into a chapter where shit happens, we’re up front and personal with Miriam, we see her and learn her from the way she reacts in that scene. We’re hooked, and things run amok (in a good way) from there.
    Because I care about her after reading that first chapter, I’ll follow her through the rest of the story.

  19. I *loved* this post. I read it twice just to make sure I didn’t miss anything and I plan to keep it bookmarked so I can always refer to it whenever I write an opening from now on.

    What do you think about the use of a prologue when there is an extended period of time between the events of the prologue and those which take place in the first chapter? My prologue is not really backstory information – it’s a scene which drops breadcrumbs for two of the major story arcs. At the same time though, it seems sort of erratic, beat-wise, to plop a four-year lapse in time between the end of the first chapter and the beginning of the second chapter when the rest of the story will have no such gaps in time. Or am I just fussing over the beat too much?

  20. Hi Chuck, great article. I’ve been reading your blog posts since this summer and I love your style. Now, I know that you probably get 100 requests daily of people begging you to read their rag. So, I’m no different. I have on my blog exactly one page (278 words) of my alternate universe-ish historical-fantasy anthropomorphic toy meets girl novel up right now. I’m an unpublished nobody, not too technically inclined, clown busker that writes in her spare time. I’m not worthy, but *waves arms around* “Look at me! Look at me!” I exist.

    • Of course you exist! And that’s awesome. I do not read the unpublished work of other writers (unless they’re friends, of course), for lots of reasons: time, legality, cross-pollination with my own work, etc. — but thanks, of course, for asking.

      — c.

  21. My friend Liz and I just had a long talk about beginnings, and we decided that it’s much easier to make an awesome beginning in editing. Once you get to the end of the book you can better gauge where to start it. I love the breadcrumbs and the ! versus ?, that was spot on.

    • Agreed. I have the shittiest first drafts but I edit like a mad man. My beginning from from editing. In fact, I just write a simple beginning to get the story going on my first draft. I am all about momentum and having a base to work off of.

  22. I agree with that lack of patience. I don’t have it anymore. I give a book 20 pages and if I am not interested then I move on to the next book.
    Because of that I am constantly working on my first 50 pages. I try to cut out the fluff, bring my character to life, establish a relationship with the reader, and many other things. People underestimate beginnings. They think of beginning as the first few pages. I see it as act 1 personally.

  23. Chuck, do you reckon this is true of all stories, or only action-based ones? For me I find beautiful writing – as long as it’s very, very beautiful (and far more beautiful than I am yet capable of) – can keep me going for many, many, many pages before I need something more. But maybe it holds questions and answers of its own. This is one of my favourite opening paragraphs, from Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’. Its rhythm is so beautiful that I am immediately submerged in this gentle, loving mind, and it’s such a good place to be. But not much happens, here or for many pages afterwards.

    “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsigned after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.”

    • Well, I do note that good writing is a breadcrumb unto itself — and certainly more literary work may not be as subject to this. But just the same: even literary works have to give you reasons to keep reading. And story is still a component, by my mileage.

      • Yep, I guess different things bore different people, but you’ve gotta write something that won’t bore at least one person (and preferable several thousand people if you’d like to sell some books). Thanks.

        • Have you ever read The Picture of Dorian Gray? I think that one is a prime example of this; there are a couple places* in the book where not much happens for several pages, and I *almost* started just skimming until I found some dialogue. Maybe it’s me, but if the story isn’t moving, I start skimming.

          *note: both parts of that story were toward the middle. If they had been in the beginning of the book, I probably wouldn’t have kept going.

          You nailed this one Chuck. Thanks!

  24. I’m doing NaNo, too, and had no plot, so I started writing about my main character to see what would develop. Last night, over 5,000 words in, I finally conjured up what I now realize must be my opening scene.

    When I get contest results about the opening 25 pages of my mss., they often are diametrically opposed. Some judges say there isn’t enough explanation of who the characters are before they plunge into conflict, and others say it’s just right, and still others say there is too much back story. So obviously these opinions are personal to readers, and some will bail immediately and others will hang on another page or so until they have a clue about what is happening. I don’t think anyone can teach a writer how to make an opener appealing. We either do, or we don’t, and we will never please everyone.

  25. I just figured this out and I’ve been writing my book for a year. A YEAR. I had this perfectly shiny, beautifully written opening scene that I loved with all my heart and wanted to marry (if words could be married and my spouse would allow me to have 250 little word husbands and wives,) Anyway, I loved my opening, it got me into writing contests and everything. But here’s the thing, it was a glorified prologue that gave one plot point. One. And it wasn’t even the most important one. Blah blah blah character development. Blah blah blah establishing relationships. Whatever. I just rewrote my first chapter in a new spot interweaving both that precious plot point and a big fat question. Also a cat cavorting in nanobot blood. Good times. And killing that first page hurt right until I hit delete and then the pain went away and now I have an awesome first chapter.

  26. Perfect metaphor – simple enough for a writer to understand, with scintillating splashes of manic hilarity, and a subtle undertone of creepiness. Thank you, honoured wordmaster.

  27. In my most recent novel, I LOVE the first like, 4-6 pages. It’s after that I lost my way. And it might not actually be bad. It’s still weak knees baby new.

    But breadcrumbs. Yeah breadcrumbs.

  28. I actually like a prologue in a book. I find it eases me into a story. Make it to weird and i wont go beyond it, but if done right i will follow to the start of the first proper chapter.

    I think the start is important, its like as they say “first impressions count”. Its how that first line reads that probably defines how the reader pictures the rest of the page. Get the first few lines to flow and you might just have enough to convince people to follow

  29. This was a brilliant post. As somebody who is absolutely shite at beginnings it really rang bells with me. Sometimes I write the whole damn story and go back to the beginning afterwards, when I know what’s going on, and write it properly. Other times I just remove the flannel and start the story at a point that was, originally, half way in. I am currently wrestling with that in my Nano effort. Sigh. I tell myself that if I manage a whole novel, even one without a beginning, it’s better than nothing! 😉

    Cheers

    MTM

  30. **Bookmarks another Chuck Wendig post.**

    Thanks Chuck! I don’t suppose you could give a heads-up if you’re ever planning a “Stop eating all that chocolate, it’s NOT the only thing with the magical power to make your brain do writing!” post in the future, please? I think that’ll be the cherry on my ‘Encyclopedia of Bad-Ass Wendig Knowledge For Writers’ cake. 😉

  31. Thank you for this very instructive pep talk. Now if i can just develop the aesthetic judgement to see my writing and know how the balance of bread crumbs is perceived by a reader.

  32. You know, there’s a horror novel called The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott which contains a sex scene between a houseplant and a clown. Hands down the most disturbing thing I’ve ever read. Great article, but you had to mention go fuck a houseplant and now I’m having flashbacks to that scene…

  33. Part 2 of this blog: HOW to start with a willingness to have things happen and to ask questions. Though I agree with everything, especially the high opportunity cost of the time spent reading, it is all easier said than done.

  34. […] Ryan, a former star quarterback whose only recent achievement is a genital herpes commercial, loves the instant respect that comes with a (fake) badge and uniform. Justin, a nervous video game designer, isn't buying it. But his new (pretend) profession …Ryan, a former star quarterback whose only recent achievement is a genital herpes commercial, loves …sp;… […]

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