Thursday, July 31, 2008

Great Beginnings - Day Four

Today I'm going to start with what I think is a great beginning. Actually, every novel I've read by Michael Robotham has a great beginning. Maybe it's because he was a journalist and he knows what you need to pull the reader in. It was hard to choose, but I've picked Lost (and a big thank you to Michael who gave me permission to use this):

The Thames, London
I remember someone once telling me that you know it's cold when you see a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets. It's colder than that now. My mouth is numb and every breath like slivers of ice in my lungs.
People are shouting and shining torches in my eyes. In the meantime, I'm hugging this big yellow-painted buoy like it's Marilyn Monroe. A very fat Marilyn Monroe, after she took all the pills and went to seed.
My favourite Monroe film is Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. I don't know why I should think of that now, although how anyone could mistake Jack Lemmon for a woman is beyond me.
A guy with a really thick moustache and pizza breath is panting in my ear. He's wearing a life vest and trying to peel my fingers away from the buoy. I'm too cold to move. He wraps his arms around my chest and pulls me backwards through the water. More people, silhouetted against the lights, take hold of my arms, lifting me onto the deck.
'Jesus, look at his leg!' someone says.
'He's been shot!'

Why do I think this works? Look at all the story questions - we know he's in the water, clinging to a buoy, but we don't know why. We don't know who he is but we know he's in trouble (maybe dying from hypothermia because of the way his mind is wandering). We know it's freezing cold. We know that underneath what's happening to him, this guy observes things and notes them mentally (important in terms of a large plot element). And Robotham makes us wait through the meandering mental stuff to that moment of shock - he hasn't just fallen in, he's been shot.

Part of this is pacing, and part of this is that balance between not giving the reader everything up front (making us wait, making us want to find out) but not confusing us. He tells us at the top that this is the Thames in London - a simple device that saves a lot of time and trouble. The other Robotham book I'm reading at the moment, The Suspect, starts with the main character, a psychologist, up on a hospital roof with a teenage boy who is about to jump off. So both books start with life-and-death situations. That works for me!

Danger Zones in Beginnings
Yesterday I talked about the dangers of using a prologue as your beginning, so I won't go there again, but here are some others:
Starting with Setting
Setting on its own is boring. Once upon a time, novels used to start with two pages of setting before a human entered. Nowadays, readers often skip long setting descriptions - you may not like it but it's true. Setting is not action. It's not movement forward. And it very rarely is conflict. You could say that a snowstorm implies conflict - not until there's a human in that storm, in danger. And I'd still rather start with the character and his/her fear of that storm, and desperate desire to survive. Readers don't connect with setting on an emotional level. It's not really a hook or a question.

So you can certainly start with some setting - of course you need it somewhere in there, because it's part of situating the reader (that was yesterday's post) - but the key element here is that your setting needs to be vital to what is happening. The action or conflict. The excerpt above has the icy Thames as its setting - have another look and see how many words are used that actually only describe the place. Apart from the heading, none. Every single word to do with setting is strongly connected to the main character and what is happening to him.

Starting with Dialogue
It's great to start with dialogue - I've done it myself. What doesn't work is dialogue that has no speaker identification, and hangs out there in limbo as a stream of sentences. The reader very quickly gets annoyed because they don't know who's talking, where they are, and often it's not apparent what the dialogue is even about. It looks snappy and fast-paced, but 99% of the time it doesn't work.

Starting with Backstory
Apart from the boredom factor, starting with a whole heap of backstory is Telling. What you're really doing is trying to explain to the reader why your character is like they are. Show us in the story, don't tell us all this stuff at the beginning (don't tell us any time in the story). We read to discover, we read to be surprised, we read to understand. If you give us all this backstory, you aren't letting readers do their job (yes, you have to give the reader room to be in the story too).

Starting with a Dream
Oops, I'm guilty of this! But I made darned sure that the dream was: a) very short and dramatic, b) very dreamlike, c) very clear to the reader what it was. A dream doesn't work when: you don't tell the reader until pages later and they feel tricked; it goes on and on without much purpose; you make it too much like a real dream which is fragmented and weird and nonsensical; you make it too orderly so that it's obvious you're trying to use it as some kind of device to give the reader information; it's boring; it doesn't move the story forward in any way.

Starting with Your Character Waking Up
Everybody wakes up. Yawn. Waking up starts the day - it doesn't start any significant action. Unless your character wakes up and their house is on fire. In that case, we can skip the stretching and the looking for the slippers and the banging on the alarm clock and the cat jumping on the bed and the smell of the spouse brewing coffee and the shower and the ... You get the picture. Waking up doesn't provide movement forward, precipitating action and immediate conflict and reaction from your character. An earthquake or a fire or a bomb might. (To this Danger you can add any other everyday habit a person does which is ultimately boring.)

Starting with a Character Who is Not Your Main Character
This is a viewpoint thing, and part of situating your reader. If you make it absolutely clear that the first character the reader meets is not the main character, you could get away with it. But the reader expects that the first voice they hear, the first person they "see" will be the Number One person in this novel. We can't help it - it's a reading habit, I guess. We're looking to invest in the main character, we're wanting to care about them, follow them through the story. You start with someone different, it's confusing. The last thing you want is to confuse your reader, so I'd advise against this. (This might be a reason someone wants to use a prologue - so they can start with a different character. Same question as yesterday - if you were told to get rid of it, could you?)

OK, that's my list of the most dangerous ways to try and start a story. I'm sure you could find examples where writers have done any of the above and done it well. That's the key, though, isn't it - doing it well.
Now for your 200 words. You can email it to kidsbooks at optusnet dot com dot au. Put it in the body of the email (you can put your name at the bottom or not), and I will post each one separately which will allow readers to then contribute comments. My final suggestion is that before you send it, read it out loud to yourself. Listen for clunky sentences, and see if it flows. It's a good test!


Esther.Jade said...

Very helpful list of what not to do and I thought the extract of what to do was a really illustrative example.

I totally agree with not starting with secondary characters - that was about the only one I've consciously thought of before. I've been guilty of starting with setting, back story and waking up - will not do again! I found the dialogue one interesting. So many people advocate it but what you said made a lot of sense.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Sherryl, can I add something to your observation about journalists "knowing what you need to pull the reader in"? I think you make a good point there. One of the prime commandments of journalism is "lead with your best shot." In writing news, we must grab a reader's attention with the very first sentence EACH AND EVERY TIME. I think sometimes that approach does help us craft a fiction opening that is "grabby" from the start. (Of course, it can backfire on us, too, and often does.)

You may have heard the phrase "burying the lead." In news writing, that refers to embedding the story's most salacious or outlandish detail somewhere below the opening graf, and it's a challenge (especially with young reporters) to keep that from happening. No one wants to give away the entire essence of an article in the first few words, so some of us go to great lengths to give a broad hint at the heart of the story without laying out every gory detail right up front.

Of course, there are numerous challenges when going from news to fiction, too. Chief among them, I've found, is that many journalists tend to adopt a very dry, straightforward style (of necessity) in their professional scribblings, and we have to work very hard to overcome that "voice" when we "cross the road" to the fun side of writing. :-)

Valerie Everhart said...

Beginnings are my biggest struggle..thanks for doing this workshop! I'm really getting a lot from it.

Virginia Lady said...

Great workshop! I have been editing and I keep deleting parts from my opening. You've given me a very good idea of what *should* stay and what needs to go. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying this workshop, and appreciate the time and effort you have put into it.

A word about journalist. I've been writing for a local paper for 10 years. I find writing fiction completely different than writing for a paper.

But judging from disorderly's comments, maybe I shouldn't view it as such.

I am new to fiction.

Again thanks for your time and effort


Natalie Hatch said...

I took my daughter along to meet Michael last year, he was great, she wasn't really impressed (Australian Idol was on...) but by the end of it she was actually enthralled in his story. Great writer.
I find that I start a novel and then on the edit I cut out at least the first seven pages to where the action starts. I always start with backstory, don't know why, probably getting into the groove.

Sherryl said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I'm glad this has been useful. On to the 200 words part!