Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I love it when I surprise myself. I had a really fun idea for a scene pop into my head yesterday, in a book I thought I had thoroughly outlined. Now I can cut some boring scenes and sum up their information. Yay! Plus, I have slightly shorter hair that now has no grey in it. It's also a little redder, which wasn't my plan, but I like it. My hairstylist seems to have decided that since I have green eyes, my hair should be redder.

Here's another reader request writing topic. Previously, I talked about endings. Now, let's deal with the other end of the book: the beginning.

The beginning is one of the most critical parts of the novel, especially if it's the book you're using to find an agent and a publisher in the first place. Those first few pages will determine whether agents and editors will read more. A killer ending does no good if nobody reads past a weak opening. Then the beginning is what may help sell the book to readers. Bookstore browsers often make their purchase decisions based on the beginning of the book, and it's the first chapter that's posted on the online bookseller sites or as an e-book preview. A good beginning is what sells the book.

The thing that's very important to remember about beginnings is that you shouldn't get bogged down in trying to create the perfect beginning before you move on with your writing. Sometimes you won't know how to start until you get deeper into the book, and you'll never find the perfect beginning if you get so hung up on creating the perfect beginning that you never move on. You may make a few false starts before you find the real beginning, but don't worry about that. You can fix it in revisions.

So, where do you begin? As close as possible to the start of the action. This is something that has changed recently, as publishers seem to believe that readers have the attention span of a crack-addled gnat and need to have something big happen right away or else they'll lose interest. To look for models of beginnings that can sell in today's publishing environment, look at books published in the last couple of years, especially by debut authors. Books from even ten or fifteen years ago read like Victorian novels in comparison to what sells today, and established authors can generally get away with more.

The beginning has to do a lot of work. It sets the tone for the book, letting readers know if this is going to be funny, serious, emotional, scary or whatever. It introduces the main character and tells us why we should care what happens to him. It also gives us a hint of what's missing in his life, why the things that happen to him may ultimately be good for him, even if they're difficult. It sets the stage, showing us what the world of the book is like and what may be at risk. And it should set out the story question, the reason we'll want to keep reading to see what happens.

The opening of a novel consists of two parts. In Hero's Journey terms, it involves the "ordinary world" and the "call to adventure." In other words, the point when things start to change, along with a glimpse of what life is like for the main character before things start to change. The "ordinary world" sets the stage, showing both the "normal" state for the character as well as showing what's lacking in the hero's life, what needs he has. We have to see what the hero is like at the beginning in order to appreciate how he changes through his adventures. We have to see what the world is like before the hero takes action in order to appreciate how the hero's actions change the world, or else we have to see what it is about the hero's world that makes him willing to take a risk to preserve it.

This is the happy hobbits in the Shire scene, the lonely heroine of a romance, the farmboy yearning for adventure, the undiscovered wizard. And then things change. The hero's world may be threatened, the hero may get an opportunity, the hero may be asked to do something, the hero may meet someone -- however it goes, it means that nothing will ever be entirely the same again. This part shows readers what the story's going to be about. It raises the story question of can he/will he win, solve, find, learn, etc. And these days, this needs to come as close as possible to the start of the book.

Balancing the setting the stage part against the need for immediate action is tricky. It helps if your hero's ordinary world is fairly exciting -- like the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones is going past all those booby traps to get to the idol and then barely escaping. That's not really connected to the main story, but it introduces us to the hero in a very vivid way. Another popular tactic is the prologue, which shows the stuff going on elsewhere that will eventually affect our hero, so that when we see the humble farmboy in his ordinary world, we already have a sense that his life is about to change -- this is what happened in the original Star Wars, where the first thing we see is the space battle where the ship is captured by Darth Vader and his forces and the droids are sent away with the secret message. Then we meet Luke Skywalker on his uncle's farm, just as his uncle's about to buy the droids, and we know things are about to get interesting for him even while he's still in his ordinary world. The prologue can be tricky if you're writing with a limited viewpoint and the prologue would have to show something your viewpoint character wouldn't see. JK Rowling did this in most of the Harry Potter books. The books themselves were almost entirely from Harry's point of view, but there were prologues involving things he didn't know about or couldn't see.

What I often like to do is show hints of the things that will eventually change the hero's life around the edges of the ordinary world. My books have involved a mix of the real world and the magical world, and in the first book in the series, my heroine didn't yet know about the magical world, but I still wanted readers to know from the beginning that it was a fantasy. So I had my heroine running into weird things she couldn't explain that the readers could identify as fantasy elements. You can also reverse the usual order of the ordinary world/call to adventure segments, starting with whatever challenge is issued to the hero, then showing the ordinary world of that character while the character decides what to do. That can lend tension to scenes that would otherwise be boring, as the happy hobbits in the Shire scene becomes poignant if the hero is seeing these things from the perspective of knowing he may have to leave and risk his life to save this place and these people he loves.

Some things not to do at the beginning of a novel:
Don't think you've come up with a brilliant idea to open with an incredibly exciting scene, and then have the heroine wake up to find it was a dream. That seems to show up on a lot of lists of immediate rejection triggers.

Don't get bogged down in backstory. This isn't the time for a history lesson on your world, your character's life story or anything else that involves lots of telling.

Don't think you're getting around the no boring backstory rule by having characters give that information in dialogue. Putting it in quote marks doesn't make it more exciting.

If the beginning of your story involves someone traveling to another place, start with the main character arriving at the place. Don't bother with the journey unless something interesting and important happens during the journey. If your heroine is traveling to a remote manor on the moors to be a governess, start with her arrival if the only thing happening on the journey is her thinking about why she's taking this job, leaving home, sad about life, whatever. However, if on the journey her coach is ambushed by bandits, the mask on one of the bandits slips as she fights him off, and then when she meets her new employer she thinks he looks awfully familiar, then, yeah, leave the journey in. (Ooh, that sounds like it would be a fun book.)

As for how to come up with that all-important punchy first line, I really have no idea. All I can say is to remember that you don't have to have that line to begin with. I've had first lines be the first thing to pop into my head, with that being what sparked the book, and I've had that be the last thing I come up with. Sometimes you'll get the idea for the first line after you've written the end. Don't get too hung up on finding that perfect first line. It's the whole opening that's important. It's better to have a really gripping opening scene even if the first line isn't something that will be quoted in articles about great first lines than to have a killer first line and an opening scene that doesn't live up to the promise of that first line.

I'm still taking questions for future writing topics, so keep them coming!

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