Friday, March 9, 2012
How to Lose a Reader in Ten Pages or Less by Teresa Kennedy
Few writers really understand just how important the beginning of a novel can be. Sure, they’ll read all that stuff about a grabber opening line, the pros and cons of prologues, how NOT to begin chapter one with dialogue, or background, or from somewhere inside your protagonist’s head, but almost inevitably, every unpublished writer commits any or all of those mistakes in the first ten pages of their book.
As valid as those rules of thumb might be, each is only partially true. A good prologue can work just fine if it draws the reader into the world of the story. So can dialogue, if it’s bright and engaging, and while excess background doesn’t belong in that first paragraph, it’s equally important to set the scene and include what’s relevant as the story opens. By the same token, many great novels begin inside the protagonist’s mind, but it only works when it’s a truly compelling character.
So why are so many novels doomed to the slush heap because prospective readers, editors or agents don’t read past your sample? Because most writers fail to understand one simple truth: You don’t understand anything about how to begin your novel until you’ve written the end of it. Instead, writers tend to begin a story with a head full of questions and keep on writing until they discover how to answer them. As a result, I’ve seen literally hundreds of manuscripts where it’s all too obvious just how many pages in they were before the story really began.
Only but the most dedicated and savvy authors among us actually go back and gut renovate their opening pages from the perspective of one who knows how the book ends. Fact is, though, there’s no one better equipped to create a truly compelling opening. And once you know the end of the tale, your task is to go back to that beginning and use it to plant some relevant questions in the reader’s mind—“Why does every woman in the world fall for this guy except her?” “What does he mean—nobody wants to be born in Pennsylvania?” Or even, “Why do vampires have to go to high school, anyway?”
Whether your opening evokes obvious or subtle questions in your reader’s mind, they serve as the principle means of getting us engaged in the story you have to tell. Questions keep us reading, and when we stop reading, chances are it’s because you’re telling us too much about all sorts of things that are essentially irrelevant. Nobody needs to know how old your character is, or talk about the weather or suddenly learn that Biff has hated Brussels sprouts since that time at Grandma’s and drives a Lexus if those things don’t have any bearing on what’s going on in the moment. Great novel openings keep to the essentials; they establish your authority to tell the story and do it in such a way that they raise questions and spark a reader’s curiosity. If your opening doesn’t do those things, it’s time to give it another look.
It is true that opening lines in novels are just as important as they are anywhere else, but even the best opening line isn’t going to mean much if the paragraphs that follow don’t flow naturally from it, or worse, revert to the dull or non-essential. So let’s consider some of the approaches to a great opening by category.
The importance of IT. Usually presented as “It is” or It was…”, the all important It gives a writer a certain amount of authority combined with some flexibility. You can follow through with a scene or setting, a summary or even more abstract imagery that allows you to establish some questions in the reader’s mind. “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Orwell’s "1984" does both handily. The danger of It lies only in the temptation to cliché—“ It was a dark and stormy whatever…”
The Omniscient View. The omniscient approach is wonderfully useful because it provides the reader with an instant frame of reference.Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Novels that begin with blanket statements like we find in Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina," also establish the narrator’s authority, and pique the reader’s curiosity with a subtler series of questions—what does he mean by that? Who is unhappy? How? End result? We keep reading.
Beginning in the Middle. With this approach, you begin in the middle—of the action anyhow, and if well done, it serves to draw the reader in quite directly. Frequently, this approach challenges the reader, sometimes through the use of direct address, as in "The Color Purple": “You better not never tell nobody but God.”
Dialogue. Is very similar to beginning in the middle, because it also draws the reader immediately into the action, only this time, the action is in the form of dialogue. The key to its effectiveness as an opening however, is whether or not your dialogue ( and any attributions thereto) is actually interesting enough to keep us reading in addition to raising those questions. “Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” Rose McCauley, "The Towers of Trebizon."
Meet and Greet. Character introductions can serve a novel’s opening both in a third or in a first person narration, but they’re not going to really be compelling enough to keep us reading unless you’re somehow deft enough to be able to fully establish a character and raise questions about that character at the same time. Consider C.S. Lewis’ "The Dawn Treader": “ There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Or, from a first person perspective, John Barth’s:In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.”
Whatever your approach to what you thought was a great opening when you first sat down to write, chances are it’s not going to look as good by the time the novel is finished, so take a good long look, get another pair of eyes if need be and don’t be afraid to begin again—at the beginning, of course.
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