Monday, February 02, 2009

Novel Openings -- Part II

I'm back in California. I managed to make it back from icy Kentucky on Thursday night, only fifty-one hours late.

Taking up from Thursday's post, here are my thoughts on the points about novel openings from Angela Hunt:

1. Indicating the genre (if you start with an action sequence, you're promising a book full of action. Ditto for gore, romance, suspense, etc. The reader will naturally expect more of whatever you're doling out.)

Agree. This is why slow starts in some genres, such as action/adventure or suspense, can really hurt you. Readers of these genres expect action, and you don't want to make them wait long. If you don't start with an action scene, you may be able to make it work by setting up the proper suspenseful tone, which conveys the action is coming. Tone can go a long way toward creating tension. But this takes considerable skill.

2. Revealing your voice and skill level.

Oh, yeah. Have you ever read the first page of a novel while browsing in the bookstore? What are you looking for? The main thing I'm looking for is high skill level. No matter how the novel starts (which, again, will depend upon genre), I want to see if I can trust this author's voice through immediately seeing his/her mastery of characterization, language, dialogue, description--whatever's happening in that first scene.

3. Introducing the protagonist (I know a lot of people break this rule, but people naturally expect the first character they meet to be the main character.)

I agree, but in suspense this "rule" can be broken effectively. I wouldn't introduce a supporting "good" character instead of the protagonist in the first scene, because as Angie says, readers will assume this is the protagonist. However I have started numerous times with the "bad guy." Suspense readers know there's going to be a bad guy. Seeing this character at the very beginning can establish his level of evil and create tension for the protagonist before she ever comes on the scene. When she does make her entrance, she's typically unaware of the evil about to befall her. This creates the second type of tension in suspense. The first type is when readers don't know what will happen to the main character. This second type is when readers do know, but the main character doesn't. (This type of tension is akin to scenes in the old horror movies in which the main character is walking down a dark hall, unaware of the axe-wielding maniac hiding behind the door.)

In Dark Pursuit there are two protagonists--Darell Brooke, the washed-up suspense writer, and his granddaughter, Kaitlan. Kaitlan is the one who falls onto the path of the "bad guy." So you might think she's the main main character. Yet the book opens with Darell. Not until chapter two do we meet Kaitlan and see her immediate plight and the murder plot. By the end of the book, once the reader sees the entire arc and how the story has played out, you can see that in truth, the predominant character is Darell. This is why I start with him, delaying the "murder" action until chapter two.

4. Indicating the tense, POV, and setting.

Yes. And by the way, whether you're a writer or reviewer, do study the various POVs until you really understand the terminology. I've seen a couple reviews of Dark Pursuit in which the reviewer said the story was written in the omniscient point of view. Not correct. That gives a very wrong picture of the voice for those who understand POV terms.

5. Establishing the tone (somber, comedic, suspenseful, intellectual, etc.) If you give the reader something different in chapter two, you run the risk of alienating your reader. That's another reason why first chapters are all-important.

Agree. Tone is particularly important in suspense. Even in a non-action scene, you can create tension by darkening the tone.

6. My pet peeve (and boy, does it make me peevish): when people take an exciting scene from the back of the book and stick it up front to hook us. Makes me think the writer couldn't come up with anything better.

Totally agree. The thinking in using this approach is to draw the reader in quickly by starting with a high-action or eventful scene that will occur somewhere further in the story because the actual beginning of the book is too slow. This doesn't work. The problem is two-fold. First, it doesn't fix the slow start of the book. Immediately after this eventful scene, slowness of the real beginning of the story sets in. Better to remedy the slow start itself. Second, once you've run this exciting scene, you've telegraphed what will happen to the reader. When you leave that scene with a chapter hook, you leave the reader wanting to know what happens next. Then when you back up and start the book where it really begins, everything leading up to that first scene has now been rendered as backstory. The reader won't care what happens before that--he just wants to get back to that point and go on with the story.

Thoughts, comments, disagreements, anyone?

8 comments:

Pam Halter said...

Angie didn't mention prologues. I know most authors don't write prologues ... but in some cases, it's necessary, especially in the fantasy genre. So, I'm thinking that if something happens that's truly exciting and the reader needs to know about it, put it in a prologue. Then you can go on with the story.

JBarWriter said...

Thanks Brandilyn, these are wonderful tips, for those that aspire to write. Voice, the natural voice, instead of a writer’s voice, these are the things we learn as we master the craft of fiction.

You say when you first open the book that you want to see if you can trust the author’s voice, immediately, me too.

And I know I can trust the voice as I read the excerpt of your novel “Dark Pursuit” it draws this reader in immediately. There is intrigue in the first sentence that makes the reader want to know why a psychiatrist would ask a patient this question, the what question lingers and the reader reads on to find out why.

As I read further, the protagonist Leland Hugh’s responses draws me in deeper and I want to know the character and why he hears the dead knocking. I see the skill level in which create your characters and the dialogue (done masterfully), the language is natural, we see the psychiatrist through visuals expressed by the character.

These are the techniques as an aspiring author I want to learn and reading books such as yours increases my knowledge of the craft of writing. I impressed by the no dialogue tags, such as said, something I do hope you will do an article on.

You answered my question. :-)

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Pam, you raise a good point about prologues. This is another topic we've covered in Forensics and Faith. Check the archives for the lesson on writing the prologue. It certainly goes hand in hand with this current discussion.

JBarWriter, thank you for your kind words. I'm glad this topic is helping you.

Blinky St. James said...

A question about the first point: I have Character A and Character B. Character B tells most of the story, but Character A does a sort of introduction in the beginning that tells where the story is, etc. (it's a fantasy story.) If I made Character A's introduction a prologue instead of chapter 1, do you think it would help the story's tone? *goes to search archives*

eliza-ann said...

I have been reading your blogs on writing books and I have learned a lot. I just read the one on Prologues. That was very informative. One of mine I can see does not need the prologue, while the other I think it will help.
Thank you for putting these tips into your blog.

Blinky St. James said...

Ignore my other comment--I went and looked at your post on prologues, and I have it figured out. YAY! Instead of going with an introduction (that I was hating anyway), the prologue will have a scene with Character A, and Character B can get on with her life in chapter 1. I have great ideas now, thanks! :D

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Good for you, Katy! And Eliza-Ann, glad to be of help.

Nicole said...

"2. Revealing your voice and skill level.

Oh, yeah. Have you ever read the first page of a novel while browsing in the bookstore? What are you looking for? The main thing I'm looking for is high skill level. No matter how the novel starts (which, again, will depend upon genre), I want to see if I can trust this author's voice through immediately seeing his/her mastery of characterization, language, dialogue, description--whatever's happening in that first scene."

I don't doubt that this is common for the writer. But I'm now convinced these factors make little difference to the "average" reader. This is no put down to that average reader, but they will tolerate a whole lot more from a basic storyline than most if not all writers. The majority of novels in either CBA or ABA support this hypothesis.