The Dreaded Empty Page

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Every now and then you face an assignment involving some sort of writing. It may be an essay in college, an instruction for your subordinates or a presentation for your business partners. You sit down, open your laptop, start a new document and… nothing happens. You find that in just a few seconds your mind has turned from a fruitful spring of ideas into a barren desert. Sitting in front of an empty page and wondering how to start is far more common than you think and occasionally happens to even most experienced writers. Thankfully, I don’t think a blank page is scary at all and I hope you will stop too after reading this post. 

Starting strong is not just a writers’ problem though. It’s just as important in business and education. No matter whether your audience consists of your subordinates, managers, students or clients – you have to pique their interest before they turn away. The ugly truth is, in today’s fast moving world, streaming information edited like an MTV clip, you just can’t afford not to start strong. The alternative usually is talking to an empty room. Even if your story is brilliantly written, your essay most insightful and your product a technological breakthrough, most of your audience WILL turn away if you fail to interest them from the start. Thus, you rightfully feel pressured to come up with a catchy starting line, because you fear, if it doesn’t immediately grasp the public’s imagination, your work will wallow close to non-existence. 

Starting new work is always difficult, but for a writer it bears even more gravity. Remember all those times  in your local bookshop you have browsed through random books reading just the first paragraph to decide which one to buy? Authors are painfully aware of this process, while being also strongly affirmed in their beliefs by editors, agents and fellow writers, who amongst themselves cherish the opening sentences of great novels, claiming you should write the first paragraph of your story with meticulous care, as it is paramount to your success. All this adds to the enormous pressure to start strong, causing panic in a lot of the inexperienced authors across the globe. While I concur that the quality of the first few paragraphs is of extreme importance (and will guide you how to achieve this), I also shamelessly admit that I don’t remember ANY of the first sentences of the many books I have read. Do you?

Still, even if your product, service or concept is groundbreakingly game-changing, making your audience bored will seriously slow its popularization and/or understanding. I can honestly say I have already lived through all those situations and thus, I give you a short guide to starting strong. The following recipe will allow you to start writing without experiencing the torments of facing an empty page for hours with no effect. Of course, you can write the beginning in many different ways, but following my tips will give you a plethora of safe possibilities, on which you can build your further excellence. 

The most obvious piece of advice is not to worry about the emptiness of the page in front of you and just write whatever comes to your mind to make the page less empty. There will definitely be time to make amends and edit the written text. You can even start in the middle orf write the ending first. Divert your focus from your opening and jot down a few lines from different parts of the story and various angles. I know it’s easier said than done, but it works (especially if you have taken some time to structure your work – how to do it will be the subject of another post). Of course this doesn’t solve the problem of starting strong, it helps with an empty page though. Now, let’s get back to writing a strong beginning.

Always start with some action. Starting strong means starting with an event. Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s saying that you should start with an earthquake and then mount the pressure. Think of a dynamic situation, which will expose the wanted traits in the course of its action. However mundane or menial, it is always better than even the most innovative description. Trying to describe an unfamiliar character, product (service) or concept without easing your audience into context is confusing and discouraging. In general, think about a situation describing a transition between the unsung past and a well written future.  The next step is to identify the core subject of your work. Usually it will be the main character, the problem (concept) or the product (service). Now imagine an average Joe and think how this total stranger should perceive your character/problem/product after reading your introduction. Choose three to five essential characteristics and write them down in short, simple sentences. Try to fit the sentences into the action, matching them with the activities that best expose the characteristics they are about. So, the scene is set and the story is in motion. What you need for the final touch on your introduction is something to pique your audience’s, interest, a hook. Make your readers participate emotionally in your text. Show them a danger, a conflict or a promise. The more emotional charge, the better. Finally, when your audience is emotionally engaged in your story, make it known that you hold the solution hostage. They will have to read read on to learn it.  

Example 1

A good opening for a science paper would be about the event, which made you interested in the problem in the first place. Dr Frankenstein could start his lecture like this “On one dark and creepy, stormy night I was doing an autopsy in the city morgue when suddenly a lightning struck the body on the slab, through an open window. Could it be it? Could electricity hold a key to the gate between the realms of the living and the dead? This epiphany led me to a breakthrough in my research…”  

Example 2

Another way would be to show the background of your problem. A good, although obviously comically extreme example of this strategy is shown in “The Big Bang Theory”, when dr Sheldon Cooper tries to explain the string theory to his layman neighbour Penny by starting with an explanation how physics research began and narrates along the lines: “It’s a warm summer evening in Athens c.a. 600 BC and you’ve just finished your shopping on the local agora…”  

Example 3

In business, a safe and effective way to start, would be to describe how arduous living/working/relaxing was before your product or service. Typically you’d achieve it by painting a picture of a random person struggling to achieve what your product/service/innovation helps accomplish effortlessly. “Remember how difficult it was for you to grow a beard? With our new beard seeds its easy…”  

Example 4

If your text or presentation is marketing oriented, you can also start with a good, old, John Lennon’s classic “Imagine” A direct call to action forces your audience to stay with you and follow your lead, so… “Imagine yourself in front of an empty page. The assignment is due tomorrow, but you have made no progress. Writing has always been scary, but this time you really start panicking. Well, panic no more. All you need is G..H. Guzik’s post about starting strong and you’ll feel empowered…”

If you wish to know more about business writing, express it in a comment and I will surely devote one of my next posts to this subject. Having several years of experience in business I could elaborate on the important features of a good business presentation or a marketing teaser, but since my current area of expertise is creative writing, let me concentrate on starting a novel or a short story. Now, let’s get back to guiding all lost souls through the perils of their first paragraphs with more specific advice.

Some authors (especially those writing action and mystery) argue that starting with a twist, e.g. a background character only remotely connected to the main plot or with an unexplained event that fits into the main story pattern, but becomes understandable only after a solid part of the book, seizes interest. This may be so, but it also inevitably creates confusion. If the beginning isn’t written masterfully, it only discourages readers and even if it is, you still need to fit it neatly into your story for the audience to put the pieces together.

Read the beginning of Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear”. It pushes your patience to the limit, but the scenes are narrated cleanly keeping a brisk pace and finally reward your intellect with an “Awww* when you find out how relevant they were to the story. Alas, unless you write like Michael Crichton, it is safer to keep it simple. So far you have pictured your main character in your head and chose two or three main features of her/his character you wish to expose. Now find an event to open your narrative. You should aim for an action defining transition, one that symbolically divides the past from your story:

  • beginning or finishing a journey, e.g. ship sailing into port, plane landing, exiting a motorway, etc.
  • entering or exiting a building, a forest, a town, etc.
  • quiet before a storm, e.g. troops awaiting battle, a girl before a date, a sportsmen in a locker room, etc.
  • finding, losing or winning something, e.g. a bet, an artifact, information, money, etc.
  • meeting or bidding farewell to someone, e.g. at an airport, bus station, in a restaurant, etc.
  • someone’s birth, graduation, wedding, death, funeral, etc.

In creative writing you can safely turn to typical opening scenes without a risk of falling into a cliché trap, if only your writing keeps the scene interesting, some scenes though are so cliche you’d do better to stay away from them:

  • waking up
  • gathering herbs
  • dining at an inn

Obviously cliches can be well placed and well written and I am far from claiming that they are useless. If you want to get to know more, be sure to come back to my blog site. One of my next posts will be fully devoted to cliches and how to avoid them or exploit them.

Having said all of the above the only thing left for me to do is wish you all the best of luck in all your strong starts. By now you should be able to ease into any document with a few slick, well-pointed and interesting paragraphs. If my post helped you in any way, don’t forget to share. In fact, share this post regardlessly on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and any other network you can come up with and help a starting writer start strong. If you didn’t like my post, share it anyway,, exen only as a negative example.

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