Show & Tell: Beginnings Are Hard

Beginnings are important. Beginnings are hard.

Where to start your book? This is one of the most important—and hardest—decisions for a writer—particularly a memoir writer—to make.

My memoir, Graveyard of Safe Choices (now titled The Only Way Through Is Out), has started in at least four different places. Let’s look at the opening scenes for my last two drafts.

The Draft I Thought Was Close-to-Final

I decided to start this draft with a brief prologue. In a future post, I’ll dig into the pros and cons of prologues, but suffice it to say for now, some agents/editors love prologues and some hate them.

The opening scene in this draft showed me in my early forties, standing at a literal crossroads during a spiritual pilgrimage. Nothing much happens in this scene, but I really liked the image and metaphor of the crossroads because that’s exactly where I would end up in the “real story.” The prologue also allowed me to get in some backstory so that when the reader got to the “real story” in Chapter 1, they’d know a little about me—they’d have some context. And, I had what I believed was a killer ending to this prologue, which would pique the reader’s curiosity and encourage them to turn the page:

Crossroads. I couldn’t think of big decisions I was facing. At forty-one, my life was rolling along. My boys were settled. I was volunteering at church and at the preschool my best friend Reenie ran. Evan and I were happy enough.

I can’t remember now if I followed Joan’s directions to pray for guidance for crossroads I’d face in the future.

But if I had had any idea about one of those crossroads, I would have surely dropped to my knees. 

Ahh … the intrigue … but this opening also had problems.

  • It was a little gimmicky. The reasons for including this scene had less to do with the substance of the scene and more to do with what I thought the scene could do for the rest of the book: the crossroads metaphor, the backstory, the curiosity-piquing last line.

  • Nothing really happened in the scene. Yes, I was standing at a literal crossroads but at the time I wasn’t facing any big decisions. So really, it was kind of meh.

  • Standing at a crossroads wasn’t really what my story was “about.” Sure, I ended up at a crossroads, but my story was about learning to trust my inner voice. It was about finding the courage to live authentically. It was about identity and not caring what other people thought.

The Draft That Is Final-For-Now

In other words, until an agent or editor wants me to make more changes.

This draft also opens with a prologue, but a very different one from the previous prologue. Here, I’m a preschooler in music class with a clever idea: sing alternative lyrics to the song that’s being played on the piano. When I do, I get scolded by the teacher and sent to the back of the room. I never want to feel this way again and I vow to myself to be a good girl and follow the rules from now on.

Why I made this decision & why I think this opening works:

  • I tapped into a fiction technique that Lisa Cron in Story Genius calls “the origin scene,” which is the moment when the protagonist’s “misbelief” takes hold—that internal misbelief that’s kept her from getting what she wants. While Story Genius is geared toward novel writing, the fictional techniques translate well to memoir.
  • When I got more clarity on what my story was really about—what I wanted (to be myself, to live authentically) and what was holding me back from getting what I wanted (fear of being judged, punished for being different and for being myself), I was able to reach back into my memory and pull out this moment when I was 4 or 5 years old—when the misbelief attached that it was not okay to be myself.
  • I knew I wanted this scene to be in the book somewhere, and the more I thought about it, the best place was the beginning. This prologue establishes the conflict in the book and what my story is really about. Here’s the ending:

My body gets all hot as I stand up and walk to the back. Everyone is staring at me. I want to be like Casper the Ghost and disappear. I hope Mother Brian doesn’t tell Mommy. I hope Dee Dee and Judy will still be my friends. I never want to feel this way again—ever. I promise, from now on, I will be a good girl and follow the rules.

  • The memoir is about finding the courage to not follow the rules. To make a choice no one expected or that I expected of myself. To walk in a different direction. To make my own road. To sing the song I wanted to sing.
  • Choosing to start with the child and the child’s voice was also a strategic decision. The reader sees this young girl full of life and then sees her spunk squelched. Immediately, they bond to the character and root for her. This is also important because when they later meet the grown-up Suzette, she isn’t happy despite her life of privilege. The risk there is that she’s viewed as entitled and is an unsympathetic character. Meeting her first as a child helps alleviate this “likeability” problem.

There isn’t just one right place to start your memoir—but as you think about your opening scene, consider these questions:

  • Does the scene establish—or at least directly connect to—the central conflict of your story?
  • Does something happen in the scene? Mere description, exposition, or summary is unlikely to capture your reader’s attention.
  • Does the reader connect with the protagonist (aka, you!) from the very start?

Two more tips:

  • Don’t fall into the trap of revising your first chapter over and over again and not writing forward. Believe me, it happens. It happened to me. It happened to other writers in a writing group I was once part of. Do your best to choose a logical starting point and then write forward. You can (and probably will) change your opening when you revise your draft.
  • Look at how your favorite memoirs start. Study their openings and apply what you discover as you consider your opening.

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