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Friday, November 13, 2009

Writing the Novel Opening

My theory is that most people would prefer to read an exciting book that's poorly written, rather than a book with flawless and subtle writing that doesn't have anything going on. IDEAS are more important than PRESENTATION.

However, in many manuscripts that I've critiqued, and even some published books, while there may be a lot of action at the start I find that I can't identify WHAT IS THE POINT. I'm just watching a bunch of characters doing something. They're obviously very intent about whatever's going on, often with some explosions or characters having terse conversations about "just how critical this is," but for the life of me I can't figure out why. Who are these people? What is at stake? Why should I care?

It's important to remember that the reader doesn't understand your story at all. You need to give him information that HE will find interesting -- if he doesn't already know that the Qarkles (who invaded planet Xonia 5000 years ago) have suddenly contracted a deadly illness so that the Rebel Nymorgs can take over, he won't understand why your hero is poised to take command. Even if you explain this in 3 succinct backstory paragraphs, your reader isn't going to care. Who the heck ever heard of Xonia anyway?

As a writer, you must intrigue your reader right off the bat. He's probably not going to stay with you for more than a few pages unless you can do that. Here are some ideas for opening a novel:

* Only include information that is ESSENTIAL for understanding the immediate events happening right now. Trust me, no one cares about your backstory.

* Don't flip between characters. Identify ONE who your reader will be following. Along those lines, don't put too many characters in, especially in the earlier scenes.

* Open with an intriguing situation that sparks reader curiosity.

* Create an immediate external goal that the reader will be sympathetic to. For better results, add in a ticking clock.

* Make the protagonist's motivation understandable to the reader.

* For goodness' sake, don't open your first chapter with your character drinking tea and thinking about what has just happened to her!

* One of my favorite techniques for opening a book is using a first sentence full of irony or suggestive of an intriguing character or situation. Here are a few as selected by the American Book Review:

Call me Ishmael. - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. - Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. - George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

I am an invisible man. - Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell)

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. - Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. - Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. - Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. - Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

124 was spiteful. - Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

Mother died today. - Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. - Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. "Stop!" cried the groaning old man at last, "Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree." - Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (1925)

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. - Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

All this happened, more or less. - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

They shoot the white girl first. - Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

The moment one learns English, complications set in. - Felipe Alfau, Chromos (1990)

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. - Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. - C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) (my personal favorite)

It was the day my grandmother exploded. - Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

It was a pleasure to burn. - Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. - David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)

It was love at first sight. - Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. - Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

You better not never tell nobody but God. - Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." - Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. - Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)

Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. - Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson. - Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show (1971)

Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World. - Robert Coover, The Origin of the Brunists (1966)

"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. - Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. - L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

Justice? - You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. - William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)

Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. - J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. - Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing." - Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1983)

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. - James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. - William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot," or "That Claudius," or "Claudius the Stammerer," or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius," am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "golden predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled. - Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women. - Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. - Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)

Psychics can see the color of time it's blue. - Ronald Sukenick, Blown Away (1986)

In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. - Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. - Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye (1988)

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. - David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)


Kat Heckenbach said...

I am such a believer in needing to care about the character. I would rather have a slow but well-written start to a story, so I know the character and then can CARE what happens to her. No need to blather on with backstory, of course, but make me like the protag right off and understand where she is coming from.

Amy Deardon said...

Kat, You are, of course, correct. If you can make a character intriguing at the beginning, that's perfect. What I object to are the stories that have all sorts of things going on or people talking, and I can't get into it. Maybe this is me being curmudgeonly :-)

Andra M. said...

A story must grab me with solid writing to start, but by page 20, the words need to disappear and the story shine through.

It's a tough order, for sure, but beautiful when accomplished.

I'm with you in that backstory in the beginning is not the best way to keep me reading. There are too many ways to weave in the important information at the time it becomes important instead of dumping it on the reader in the first pages.

If I want history, I'll read a history book.

Does that make me sound curmudgeonly?

Amy Deardon said...


Brandon Barr said...

Great post Amy!
I agree with you all, Kat, Amy, Andra.

I think genre pushes all the boundaries around...but my favorite reads have character and action (or drama) right off the bat (or at least within a chapter or two).

I agree with you too Amy on back story. The readers can only handle so much (especially in the beginning when they aren't yet connected to the characters). Often only a sentence or two of backstory here or there will do wonders to tantalize the reader.

Ruth Ann Dell said...

Thanks for the super post and excellent tips for starting a novel.

I was going to add the Anne Tyler quote to my comment, but when I read through the list I found you'd beat me to it! Who could resist a book with an opening like that.

God bless

Ruth Ann

Anonymous said...

Great post Amy :)

Carla Gade said...

Great post! Thanks for the great insights.