What is the beginning of a book? That’s an easy question to answer – right?
What is the difference between the beginning and the opening? If you’re not feeling so sure about your answer to the first question now, you are not alone. This is something I have been pondering for a while.
All authors know the importance of the opening line and the opening paragraph. These create the ‘hook’ to capture the reader’s interest and make you want to read on.
The first scene and the first chapter (which may or may not be the same thing!) are sometimes considered the opening too. If you reach the end of the first chapter without putting down the book, you are likely to continue.
Whichever of these definitions you subscribe to, the amount of text we’re talking about is small. And we know exactly where to find it.
On the other hand, we have the beginning. So, next question. Are we talking about the beginning of the book or the beginning of the story? Let’s start with the story.
The Beginning of the Story
This is the chronological point of origin, which is often not where a book begins.
The beginning of the story can be found at the start, the middle or even the end of a book. It depends on the story and the storyteller.
I don’t think we can define it any more than this. It’s one of those little mysteries that make reading fun.
The Beginning of the Book
I consider the beginning of the book to be the part that tells you what the story is about.
Have ever tried to tell someone what a story is about? It’s a big concept. There are a lot of things to include. And they are unlikely to all fit in the first line, paragraph, scene, or chapter.
This can often be explained or hinted at in the opening paragraph, and certainly in the first chapter. Sometimes it’s clear from the title.
Although the cover copy (or blurb) will include this, we don’t always read books immediately after purchase. The subject still needs to be introduced early on in the book.
Again, you knew this when you bought the book. And if you’ve forgotten, you can probably tell from the cover illustration. Or the title. But it’s going to crop up in the story at its earliest convenience.
If you chose a mystery, you’re waiting to find out what needs to be solved. If you chose a romance, you’re waiting for the love interest(s) to turn up.
The main character is often not the first character we meet. Sometimes they don’t appear in the first chapter at all. For example, a detective doesn’t usually arrive in a story until after a crime has occurred.
This character usually shows up quite near the start. But we don’t necessarily know they are the antagonist until later. They don’t need to be present in person at the beginning. But the abstract concept of someone or something causing a problem has to be there.
The Desired Outcome
Often, we know what the main character wants right from the start. But then something happens and what they want changes. Or an urgent need replaces what they want as the driving factor.
Where change is involved, it is likely to take several chapters to develop.
Conflict builds up over time. Problems are usually small to begin with, and grow larger until something has to be done about them. Even if the problem is huge, it may take more than one scene to demonstrate the impact.
Internal conflict (a character wanting one thing and feeling they ought to do another) can take longer to play out.
People don’t usually assess what they have to lose until they know there is a good chance they may lose it. The main character might not realise the stakes until several chapters into the story.
The result of my rumination is this. While people sometimes use the terms ‘beginning’ and ‘opening’ interchangeably, they actually have different meanings. I consider the opening of a book to be the first scene. And the beginning of the book to be however long it takes for all the key elements to be introduced. I’d say at least the first quarter of the book.
What do you think?
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