Rework Your Beginning

 Done with your story?
Time to go back and reinvent the wheel.

So you’ve finished a draft of your short story. You’ve struggled and fought, learned, and grown. Congratulations! Now it’s time to start at the beginning again.

Before you throw your manuscript at me, hear me out. Beginnings are a testing period, and it’s where you’re just getting the feel of your voice and how you want your story to sound. When you wrote the beginning, you weren’t sure where the story was going or what was important in it. That’s why after a first draft, beginnings are often the weakest part. But they’re precisely the part that needs to be the strongest in order to win over a reader.

Stories need a feeling of strength and consistency; they need to feel like the author knows where the story is going from page one, even if the reader doesn’t know. The problem with your beginning is that it’s really a trial period for yourself, a time when you’re making discoveries, testing one voice, then another, figuring out which character you’re most interested in. That sense of ambivalence and uncertainty should never appear in your final draft. This is particularly true if you’re aiming for publication; most literary magazines make their decisions about a piece by the first page.

After the jump: how to rework your beginning.

1. Decide what’s important.

The first weak aspect of a draft beginning is how long it takes to get off the ground. Most writers are casting about at this stage, just putting their toes in the water, and there isn’t enough boldness, direction, or story. One professor of mine as a rule would throw away the first two paragraphs of every draft that came across his desk. When you look at your story, see if you could part with those two paragraphs yourself. Do they really further the story, the tension, or the development of the character? If not, strike ’em out.

2. Hone your voice.

By the time you got to the end of the story, you were finally hitting your stride. You had learned enough about what you wanted and about your character to capture the voice. If you go back to the beginning, however, you’ll see that none of that vividness and verve is there. You didn’t know what you wanted then. It’s time to re-write the beginning, with the knowledge that you now have.

3. Foreshadow.

Most foreshadowing that you see in books is the result of later editing. Few people can foreshadow on the first draft if you don’t know what’s going to happen yet! That’s why it’s necessary to make the objects and plotlines of the story more consistent by going back to the beginning again. Now you know why that old watch is so important, and who that strange man in the trench coat is. Add them in earlier to make your story feel more polished. It will give it the feeling that it was heading toward your climax the whole time.

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