Sorry for the hack title. Hey, you get what you pay for! This week’s topic is about that ever so important start of your novel or story.
If you read no further, read & understand this:
Make everybody fall out of the plane first, and then explain who they were and why they were in the plane to begin with.
~Nancy Ann Dibble
When I was with my mentor ~9 years ago, she kept reworking my beginnings. With her vorpal pen of redness (+5, at least), she would circle entire sections and draw an arrow to the front.
“Start here”, she’d write. Damned if she wasn’t spot on each time!
You see, I always wanted to “start at the start” and explain backgrounds and properly setup the action. My mentor stressed the importance of hooking your reader from the get-go. We can always work back and get to the origins of things at a later point. At first, I wasn’t buying it. Then, as I read and wrote with this in mind, I began to see her point. And my favorite example of this is Lord of the Rings (the novels).
Don’t get me wrong, these books helped shape modern fantasy. I respect them on a spiritual level. However, and this is embarrassing for someone of my gaming pedigree: I’ve never read them.
Yup, I’ve been a fantasy gamer my whole life (D&D, BBS Door games, early computer games, modern computer games, LARPs, board & card games), and I’ve never read Lord of the Rings. Well, let me clarify: I’ve never finished the epic. On two separate occasions, I picked it up with the intention of reading it. Each time, I couldn’t get past “Hobbit Genesis.” Tolkien spends a biblical amount of time up front describing hobbit families, where they lived, what they do each day, their ancestors and (seemingly) how much hair each one has on their feet.
“Not in here mister, this is the finest fantasy ever crafted!”
Well, I’m not even sure of that, but the beginning borders on “awful” in my opinion. Something like that maybe worked at a different time & place than 2011 (and I’d even argue that point if you backed me into a corner), but many of today’s readers expect to get knocked right out of their panties on page 1. They want a reason to keep reading, and it’s our job as storytellers to deliver.
What about a “great beginning?” Look no further than Jurassic Park (New York Times #1 Bestseller) for a beginning that grabs you by the nuts and doesn’t let go. We open with a doctor investigating a strange injury in a remote, tropical island. There’s a sense of mystery and secrecy around the whole thing and the doctor is left wondering after her camera goes missing. Why would anyone want to steal her evidence of the boy’s unusual wounds? What could cause such a wound? What’s a “raptor” and why are the locals so terrified?
Hook. Line. Sinker.
Taking my lessons from the fiction I’ve read and my mentor’s advice, I try to build these luring beginnings in my fiction. Actually, writing flash fiction (typically a story under 1,000 words) helped me refine the skill. Eden begins with the main character waking on the inside roof of an overturned bus. The reader and character share a discovery process as the pieces to the puzzle are arranged. In Book 1 of the Antaran Legacy, we begin with a starship crash and the political fallout from that incident.
Of course, some beginnings have what I like to describe as a hollowness to them. Sure, the action may be there, but am I really caring about it? Is it presented in such a way to trigger emotions in my heart? In other words – do I care what happens to the character(s) next? Is there the kernel of a story there to make me flip to chapter 2 before I reach over to flip the light?
Stirring all of these elements together into a wiz-bang beginning may take some time, and I caution you to not let it be a hurdle to you as you write. Vomit whatever beginning you first had in mind and just bang-out that 1st draft. You can always return later to rework the beginning, and this is where your first circle of readers can help. Ask them what they think of the beginning and you’ll find some nuggets of insight there.
Now, there’s another type of beginning that I want to mention because it flares an anger inside of me usually reserved for douchebags and criminals.
Or, so I don’t get sued for libel: the misleading declaration.
This beginning can be done in one of two ways. In Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, he opens with the large font word “Fact” and follows with some items of interest from our world. Um, just because some document listed a few names of prominent historical figures on it doesn’t mean that listing is a verified fact. The other parts of his “fact blurb” can be verified, but that first part cannot. Truth is, our ancestors wrote lots of things down, but that doesn’t make them fact (read this sentence “western/Firefly” and it makes sense). Not to me at least, and I’m the one buying or not buying what the writer is feeding me. If I believe I can reasonably verify something, I’ll accept it as fact. Otherwise, it’s just another person/group’s interpretation of something and everyone has their own agenda. Don’t tell me what is fact and I’ll do the same for you. ‘Nuff said. I think this is a cheap tactic, and I don’t approve mister! <shakes a finger at Mr. Brown>
I guess it sells books, right? Sigh…
The other type of misleading declaration is when I’m presented with an opening of a character/setting or set of characters, and then I never see those people/places ever again. What happened? Maybe I liked those people better than the other people I’m forced to share the next 300 pages with! Bring them back! While this isn’t intentional misleading, I have read several books where I kept wondering when I’d return to that awesome beginning, and then I never do. So sad.
Well, remember, these are just the opinions of one writer. As a reader, different beginnings hook us and your mileage may vary. For me, however, I live by my mentor’s advice:
Hook ‘em with their hearts.
Check out part 2 of this series, Great Middles.