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!