Thursday, January 29, 2009

Novel Openings

In three weeks I'll be at the Christian Writer's Guild Conference, teaching the morning fiction class, plus afternoon sessions on writing a compelling first page. Students in the "First Page" workshops will be submitting their pages ahead of time for critique during the class. Preparing for the "First Page" classes has got me thinking about openings in novels--what I expect of them. What works and what doesn't. Then on an author loop we got to talking on that very subject. Here's Angela Hunt's response. I'm running it (with her permission) because I agree with her on just about every point.

When I teach, I always stress that the beginning of the novel establishes an unspoken contract with the reader. In those all-important first few words, you are--or should be-- doing the following:

*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.)

*revealing your voice and skill level

*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.)

*Indicating the tense, POV, and setting

*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.

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.

I'm going to discuss each point tomorrow. In the meantime--what do you think about these points? Anything you'd add or subtract?

P.S. If you don't see a post here tomorrow, blame it on my traveling today. I'm finally getting to fly home, after being trapped in the ice storm for two days. If I arrive too late, I may not put up a post for Friday. If so, we'll take this subject up on Monday.


Carla Gade said...

Good points to keep in mind. What your saying seems to show that readers have definite expectations and it is always good not to dissapoint - especially from the get go.

Thanks for all your great advice!

Richard Mabry said...

Excellent points, starting with the concept that a first page is truly a contract with the reader. One of the most helpful books I've read on this is Noah Lukeman's classic, The First Five pages. I envy the folks you'll be teaching. They're going to learn from a master.

Anonymous said...

Great points. I agree with them. I've read some stuff where the main character wasn't introduced until chapter two and I got all confused. Thought those who were mentioned in the first chapter were the main characters.

I've learned a lot from ACFW abou the first sentence and first page for that matter.

I'll be back to see what you have to share with us.

Have safe travels!

Pam Halter said...

I'm confused by the last one. Does that mean an author is starting in the future and the book is backstory until it gets to the "beginning?"

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Pam, it's when a scene that occurs further into the book is also put at the beginning, because the scene is exciting and pulls people in. We'll talk more about this next week--but the problem with doing this is that you've telegraphed an exciting event to come, and that sets up the reader to want to know what happens after that exciting event. As a result, once the book really "starts" everything leading up to that event essentially becomes backstory.

Rita Gerlach said...

Another great post, Brandilyn. I'm going to go through my bookcase and read the first lines of my favorite novels.

Tracy said...

Thank you, Brandilyn, for continuing to give us such great information. I've recently gotten your book "Getting Into Character" and am really excited to learn from it. I hope you get home soon! Blessings!

treasurefield said...

Very interesting & helpful points!
My 14 yr old says he wants to write. (He loves to read! Do you have anything he might enjoy? He has an upper reading level.)

We'll be watching your future posts. Thanks for sharing!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Thanks, treasurefield. A 14-year-old with good reading skills can read any of my books. You might start him on Brink of Death, book #1 in the Hidden Faces series.

JBarWriter said...

As aspiring author, I follow your blog adamantly, there is always interesting topics available for the wanna-be. I agree with everything said, but the one question I have is this…

*revealing your voice and skill level.

Voice is a given…who’s telling the story and from what point of view.

Revealing the skill level? Why would one want to reveal their skill level? In what ways would you do this? other than it being obvious in the text?

I’m curious and looking forward to the next blog post.

Laina said...

I think voice is more of your style as a writer. Like Brandilyn has a style when she writes. Angela Hunt will have a different style.

If you gave the both of them a premise and asked them to write the story, they'd come out differently because of their experiences, their personalities, their style.

Our thoughts, feelings, and passions come out in our writing. I think this is what is meant by voice.

On skill level, my guess would be how well our craft of writing has been honed. I'm taking a writer's course and one of the instuctors mentions common mistakes that beginners make. As we grow in the craft of writing, it will be evident in the story, how well we've honed the craft of writing. That would include grammar and verb usage, following the rules of writing or not, stuff like that.

I'm glad I found you here, Brandilyn. I look forward to your next post. This is awesome that you give pointers here.

Hope your trip home was pleasant!

Judith Rivard said...

This is the best blog ever for advice and help on writing. Thank you Brandilyn for your help. I want to cancel my 2 year novel course online and stay here everyday. lol
I have some catching up to do from archives. Love it.

Michelle said...

We share a peeve; "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." And here I thought I was the only one! Do 'they' think we readers are too dumb to realize? C'mon!

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C.J. Darlington said...

I think the one author who opens with an action scene from further along in the book is Mary Higgins Clark. In her novel "Moonlight Becomes You" she opens the story describing a woman buried alive in a coffin desperately pulling on a string attached to a bell above ground... but the bell has no clapper.

I read this and was immediately hooked. Every chapter leading up to it is filled with suspense because you never know when she's going to be buried alive.

In the hands of a master like Clark it can be done. I guess perhaps the rest of us should avoid it when possible. :)

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

What a timely topic! I've done a rewrite of my opening but have no idea if it works.

Here's a question not covered in these initial points. What about the minor characters in the opening scene(s)? Do they need to be central to the plot or is it OK at this point to have them be more like props that show off the protagonist's way of interacting with his/her world? Understand, when I say "props" I don't mean that they read like props. Of course they need to be realistic and alive. But how "necessary" do they have to be? Is it OK for them to be necessary for character development but not integral to the plot?

Sorry for the redundancy--not sure I'm making sense.


~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. I did get home too late Thursday night to post for Friday, so we'll continue the discussion on Monday.

Becky, I think it's fine to have a minor character in the opening scene. As a reader I tend to expect any character I meet in the opening to show up again later--especially if the author has taken time to tell me something about the character. If he's described, if it's clear there's some history between him and protagonist, then yes, I'll expect to see this person again.

Another way of looking at it: If you think of the opening as showing the protagonist in her real world, then most of the time it'll be better to include other characters who mean something to that character, who help describe that character's world. Such folks are likely to show up in the story again.

In thinking back over all my openings, I can't remember featuring a "throw-away" character, so to speak. There's so much to set up in the beginning, and I try to avoid backstory passages as much as possible. So it's natural that every character whom I use in the opening scene will have some bearing on the story later.

johnny dangerous said...

Backstory always puts the brakes on the story. I see this all the time in the short fiction that students produce in my college fiction class. They'll start 'in medias res' and in the middle of action but suddenly provide all sorts of history for a reader to understand the characters in action. Screeech! You can hear the brakes. -- Another problem is the use of "prologs". These can work if the action of the prolog is ten years or more before the main action begins, I think. Otherwise, get to the story and drop the 'prolog' material in as a flashback or something else later. -- I can't tell you how many times I re-worked my beginning to "Bleeder" before I sent it to the editor who accepted it for publication recently (woo-hoo!)(and even then she had suggestions for revisions!)

Tor Hershman said...

Being a Christian, or any major religion for that matter, and writin' fiction should go together rather well, methinks.

Stay on groovin' safari,

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

So my opening-scene minor characters don't show up again. In part they show the paucity of the main character's relationships, but also his desire to do what is nobel and good. I think they show his tenderness side in a way that the next action sequence doesn't allow.

And by the way, these characters are people he meets in passing, and their appearance in the scenes is just that--in passing.

I don't know if there's a comparable kind of situation in suspense. It seems everything is "tighter." OK, I guess it would be like the waitress in the coffee shop where the protag stopped on her escape from the villain who is chasing her. Would she ever have a place in an opening scene?


~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Becky, I imagine there are plenty of instances where that would be fine. Again, it's showing the protagonist in his/her real world. Someone on the street, in a store, restaurant, etc. who never shows up again may be just fine. It all comes down to the question--is this the best way to start my novel?

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Thanks, Brandilyn.

Ah, but how does one KNOW what the best way is?