Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Great Beginnings - Day Two

Today I went for my usual walk, and it occurred to me that my 20 minutes+ is a little like a novel. I start out a bit slowly, with joints and muscles creaking and cold, and if it wasn't for the music blasting through my headphones, I might well give up and stay home (it's pretty cold here right now). But what keeps me going is not just the promise of better health and the virtuous feeling of "having walked" (kind of like that virtuous feeling of "having written"!), but the sense of setting out yet again, about to see what's new today in the neighbourhood, and the music in my ears. I choose to put things on my mp3 player that will stimulate me and keep me walking, even when my toes and face are numb.

Does the beginning of your novel provide that sense of adventure? Of rousing voice and music? Of keen interest in the possibilities in front of you?

I talked yesterday about how well-published writers already have their "contract with the reader". They've set it up through publishing several novels that show what they have to offer. But if you're a new writer, you don't have that behind you. So your job is to create a beginning that will hook any reader right into your story. Today we are focusing on two things: starting in the right place, and the first sentence. I'm going to begin this by giving a link to J.A. Konrath's blog post on bad beginnings. It's worth reading.

Starting in the Right Place
We all need to start somewhere. My friend T, who is a fantasy writer, has rewritten her novel about a million times (only kidding) but one of the key things she has wrestled with is where to begin. I think she has changed her opening chapter about eight times. This doesn't mean rewriting it - this means starting with an entirely new chapter. Do you start with the viewpoint character? Not always. I'm seeing a lot of prologues (I took 20 books off my shelf last night and checked) where the writer has started with another character, hence labelling it Prologue.

Is this a good thing? Not very often. It gives your reader the sense that you didn't know where else to put this stuff, so you stuck it at the beginning and called it a Prologue. Sometimes it's OK, sometimes the reader skips it or wonders what you think you're doing! If you need to show a different character's POV, ask yourself why. Have you done it throughout the book? I see crime novels where the writer seems to think I need to have the "villain's" side of things. Mostly, I don't, so it annoys me. Can't you take that prologue stuff and thread it into the story? And if you did, wouldn't it create more story questions and raise the tension?

Very often, in a student's story, I'll suggest they start on Page 2, or 3, or sometimes 8! But sometimes I will also suggest they start earlier. It may well be that a flashback they have inserted on Page 3 actually needs to be dramatised and become the beginning. I can hear you thinking: So how on earth will I work out where to start? I'll go back to Hooked for what I consider is very good advice - start with the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is what propels the story into motion. It implies, and must have, action, conflict, drama and movement forward. It's not description or exposition or backstory or characterisation - it is purely and simply a key point of action that makes your main character act or react. If you are starting with something that doesn't demand action or reaction, you're probably not starting in the right place.

The First Sentence
Is your first sentence a zinger? Will it make me read the first paragraph?

Is your first paragraph gripping and intriguing and fascinating? Will it make me want to read the first chapter?

Tomorrow's post will be about the ingredients. But today I want to focus on what keeps us reading. How do you write a first sentence that zings? With a lot of persistence and hard work! Very often I feel that I can't start a new story or novel without a great first sentence that will get me excited and determined to follow it up with even better sentences. Almost as often, I will come back later, in the revision process, and delete that first sentence or paragraph and persevere until I write the zinger. The one that will keep any reader glued to the page.

Here are two of my favourite first sentences:
"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." (Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeta Naslund) - there is so much in this: recognition of Moby Dick, a strong voice, a woman who is willing to declare herself up front, intrigue (so what will she tell me?).

"The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say. About anything." (The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness) - a friend read the first paragraph of this book and said "That voice and bad grammar would put me right off". I love it - it tells me immediately that something different is happening, and I want to know what, and who this person is. (Yes, it's two sentences, but the second one is short.)

And some crime examples:
"I don't mean to bitch, but in the future I intend to hesitate before I do a favour for a friend of a friend." (L is for Lawless by Sue Grafton)
"The old lady had changed her mind about dying but by then it was too late." (City of Bones by Michael Connolly)
"The day I got the murder book, I was still thinking about Paris." (The Murder Book by Jonathan Kellerman)

I want to make a point here - many of my favourite opening sentences come from middle grade and YA novels. These writers know they've got a tough audience. They know how important it is to scoop the reader in. My crime examples above come from writers who aren't sleeping on the job - these are not their first novels by a long way, but they still understand how important it is to grab the reader by the throat and hold on. And build on it.

Today's exercise is a double-barrel (if you choose, otherwise choose just one). In the Comments, post your favourite opening line from a novel or story - don't forget to tell us where it comes from, and you could also say why you like it, why it works for you. Two sentences allowed only if one of them is less than three words.
And you can also post your own opening sentence of your novel or story - but make sure it's a goodie!


Anonymous said...

"Until the drowned girl came to Laurel's bedroom, ghosts had never walked in Victoriana." Joshilyn Jackson's The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. The language pulls me in, and raises a lot of questions. Why is Laurel seeing a drowned girl? Why is the the girl drowned? Where's Victoriana? Is it immune to ghosts? (It helps to know this is not a paranormal book - it's mainstream fiction that has this one paranormal element playing through it.)

You made me realize the problem with the opening of my last book. The inciting incident is a concert, the catalyst is at the end of the concert when my main character is chosen for something. The thing is - I don't have to show the whole concert. there's an event mid-way through - she gets a vision - start there! This is so DUH I can't believe it. UGH.

And here's an old opener of mine I still like, from the short story, "Lies My Mother Told": "Growing up without a father was easy; it was growing up with my mother that was hard."

Anonymous said...

I have a question.

Everyone talking about openings is anti-prologue. I am, by rule, an antiprologuer myself with ONE exception - when the story opens in a place that nonlinear, out of chronology. If I need to show the events that happened fifteen or a hundred years ago, doesn't it make sense to label that a prologue rather than Chapter 1, so as not to confuse the reader? Or do you still think this is an example of weak storytelling and whatever happened fifteen or one hundred years ago should be worked into the story gradually (not via flashback or infodump!)?

Anonymous said...

From one of my own WIPs:

The body lay on the bed in a pool of rose petals. Pure crimson.

I have been noticing a lot of anti-prologue sentiment over the last few months, and I confess I'm baffled by it. I don't mind a prologue, particularly if it happens out of time sequentially as Jess mentioned or if it's from a character other than the central one or two. This particular opening line comes from a brief 3 paragraph Prologue in my killer's perspective. He has some other scenes through the book, but most of it is told through the heroine or hero. I suppose I could just call it Chapter One and not change anything with it, but as it's so short compared to the other chapters, it seems odd to call it one. Hence prologue seems to fit best.

Esther.Jade said...

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen) This is the only opening to any novel that I know by heart. Why I like it? It gives me the voice of the story, the plot and the main theme all in one. How could I not read that book?

What I don't like about prologues is if I invest in the character and turn to the first chapter and it's about someone else - my first connection to the book has just been severed. A prologue that I did like (in "Shades" by Marguerite Poland) came from a chapter in the middle of the novel. It was the same characters as the first chapter but so at odds with the tranquil beginning that I had to read till I found out what had happened to change things.

I'm still bashing out my first sentence. A question to Sheryl: I think the inciting incident in my book is when my protag's parents die but the plot only starts moving when she decides to run away. I really don't want to start with her grieving, so would it okay to begin with her about to run away (and she is interrupted)?

Anonymous said...

Esther, I'm with you, I was preparing to type in the first line from Pride and Prejudice when I saw your post. In the spirit of other good openings, I always liked this one: "The beet is the most intense of vegetables." (Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins). To me, it's surprising, makes me smile, gives a sense of the tone of the book, and really makes me want to know what comes next and how does this relate to the story.


Anonymous said...

Scott Westerfeld had me at "Chapter Zero: We are all around you." in So Yesterday.

But that might be because I'll give SW an entire novel to get good. Still the thought of having a chapter zero was cool to me.

Here's my opening sentence from a YA urban fantasy. "Jonathan Clarke felt a flicker of uncertainty as he walked among the living."

Lisa Cohen said...

I don't have the book in hand right now, but I think it's from Jim Butcher's White Knight and it goes something like: "It rained frogs the day the white council came to Chicago."

I love this opening because it states the absurd in such an ordinary tone of voice, it just begs to be read.

Margay Leah Justice said...

Ah, beginnings. Who among us hasn't wondered how the heck to get on the ride we affectionately call writing? Great post!

Sherryl said...

Jess - I like to think of those slow beginnings as your "runway" into the story. The Duh moment is great, because it means you can see what needs to be done - cut! I loved your opening line - that'd keep me reading.
In answer to your question about prologues, I think it depends on what the prologue is doing and how it is written. This is a post on its own. More on this in Day 3!

Seanachi - your opening sentence is certainly setting us up for a murder. I guess my question to you would be: why do we need the villain's POV? If you have a really good reason for this, and it is vital to the story, then go for it.

esther jade - I would absolutely start with her running away. It does sound to me like the first movement forward in the story.

Shannon - I'm glad you mentioned tone. Even that one short sentence suggests more than story - it suggests what kind of story. Part of that contract.

redduck - that sentence is so intriguing, and unexpected. It sets up the first story question immediately. I know a magazine editor who started her first issue as Issue Zero!

ljcohen - there it is - the tone thing again. I think that's what a great opening sentence also does - creates expectation.

Anonymous said...

OK, so the story that I chose (kind of random, 'cause I wanted to continue to watch Jeopardy) would be actually from chapter one instead of the prologue. Though I did read the prologue. ^^ Anyway:
"I was sixteen years old the day I was lost in the forest, sixteen the day that I met my death." It's from Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt. I like this, because how could you meet your death? It leads to an awesome story, even though I figured it out before I even read the book. Haha.
Others that I enjoy is the first line of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley, and (shock, amazement!) the first line of Twiling by Stepehenie Meyer. Contemplating death like that obviously catches my attention. Haha
My own for my WIP is: "My legs stretched as far as they could, carrying me across the forest path."
I hope it works. It may change here soon. Editing is coming up within a few days.
ManiacScribbler =^..^=

Joe Iriarte said...

This is the opening sentence from my WIP, a YA novel about a teenage boy with the ability to fade into the background and avoid being seen: "The truck stop was the sort of place where it was easy to disappear." What do you think?

Sherryl said...

maniac scribbler - your opening sentence made me wonder if your main character was a very tall person, or had extra long legs? If he/she is running or escaping or something urgent is happening (I hope there is), can you show us this too in the sentence?

Joe - I like this sentence, but I'd expect an even better second sentence as a follow-up. Or a little more intrigue in this one perhaps, especially given what you said the novel is about.

Marina said...

One of my favourites is from Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation:

"Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.”

This tells so much without being an infodump. It gives a lot of facts about the story plus a feel for the personality and background of the main character, all in such an amusing way that you can’t help wanting to read more. Why is Sophie in Temptation, a place she clearly doesn’t want to be? What other disasters are in store?

Anonymous said...

"The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit." Scott Westerfield in "Uglies." Why I liked it: 1) an intense image which I could relate to, 2) interesting use of language, 3) within the second paragraph [the first line was a paragraph unto itself] I discovered how indicative of the lead character this line was and I liked her voice.

And #2 "There were some days that deserved to be be drowned at birth and everyone sent back to bed with a hot brandy, a box of chocolates and a warm, energetic companion." By Diana Pharaoh Francis in "The Cipher." This had all of the elements I liked of the quote above, but it also had the added advantage of taking an old cliché and turning it on its head. The second sentence, which is longer than three words, but is just perfect is, "Today was without question one of those days."

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sherryl. I'll take it into consideration when I'm editing. ^^
ManiacScribbler =^..^=

Anonymous said...

I have two favorites. 1) "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." ~Stephen King, The Gunslinger I like this one because it does everything I could ever want a first sentence to do. It introduces the good guy and the bad guy, has conflict, and makes me want to know more. And it does all that with such simplicity. 2) "The first clue came with a corpse." ~Parnell Hall, A Clue For The Puzzle Lady I like this one because it's short and sweet, it sets up the main story, and it sets the humorous tone of the story as well. All of that makes me want to keep reading, despite the fact that the next page or so is something of an info dump.