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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trouble With Novel Beginnings

I've been to a few retreats now and I keep hearing the advice of 'start your novel with action'. While I bow to the experts who've been in the business far longer than myself and have sold thousands of books, I don’t necessarily agree with that. Perhaps it’s a genre specific thing of genres I don't write! The statement is too vague and easy to misunderstand. Too many people take it literally and feel like they have to start their book with explosions, murder, a chase, a fight, something huge and dramatic. But I don't think that's really what the advice means.

When you think of action try not to think of it as a Hollywood thing, think instead in a literary sense. Better yet, replace the word action with tension. War And Peace didn't start with action but it definitely started with tension.

So what does that mean? How should you start your book? Somewhere near the beginning of your book should be the catalyst, the thing that sets everything in motion and brings your protagonist to the inevitable end of the book. You can start with the catalyst. I often do myself. But if there's something else, something that will build tension and add to the plot then you can start with that. Just remember, the key is to catch the reader's interest with some kind of tension or a desire to know more.

Check out this great post on The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings by Jane Friedman of Writer's Digest: http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/2010/03/11/TheBiggestBadAdviceAboutStoryOpenings.aspx

17 comments:

  1. This is great advice! That statement often is misunderstood to mean an explosion like you said, but a scene with some great tension will have the same effect!

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  2. For YA writers, I once heard advice along the lines of "Start your novel two chapters after your first draft begins."

    I guess the speaker was trying to cut the preamble, and get to exactly what you're talking about; the critical moment.

    I've read books that throw the reader straight in at line one, and most times I don't like these big bang starts. I feel disorientated - I like to know where I am, who is there and then have things get going, even if it's a couple of paragraphs later.

    I start mine with tension, rather than a big bang, so I am with you :)

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  3. This is really interesting, and it's something I love to talk about (whenever I get the chance) because there's so many opinions out there.

    When I pick up a book, I prefer to get snagged by something unique about it. It doesn't have to be action, but I want something to amuse me, intrigue (not confuse) me or strike a cord somehow.

    I tend to start my own books with something quirky happening. Right off one begins with a girl getting clunked in the head by a clumsy horse and another opens with a wrecked carriage, with the MC being dragged to safety. One is really action, the other isn't, but both are 'different' I think.

    The YA I'm peddling starts entirely differently than either of those with only a little action but an undertone of danger. I've had several people (not agents) say I should cut the beginning and make it pure action. But the truth is that the first sentence tells you a lot about my MC and how she thinks. I would consider changing it, but you'd have to have a VERY good argument to convince me.

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  4. Thanks Harley. You're absolutely right, tension is where its at!

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  5. You know Emma you make a great point. I think it depends a lot on style and reader preference. I love to get to know the characters right away but I like my action too!

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  6. I love a quirky beginning A. Gray, I'm glad your going to stick with it!

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  7. Great post. Thanks. :) I'm struggling with the beginning of my WIP as we speak. It won't be action I think. I'm just not sure where/when I want it to begin.

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  8. I've been there SarahJayne. Think of the most important element in your novel and that will help steer you toward where to begin. Good luck!

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  9. I had the hardest time trying to find the beginning of my book. I had too much clutter in the beginning. My mother-in-law (also a writer) said you want to have something happen somewhere before or by the 6th or 7th page. The first paragraph, even the first sentence has to grab the reader.
    I found that I'd had my beginning, in that original draft, about at the end of the first chapter, beginning of next. You have to be able to cut to it, and forget that you liked something about what you'd written. You can bring it in later.

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  10. So true that it's "tension" and not "action" that you need to start with. I hate coming into a book in the middle of an action scene, but I do what a sense right away that something is wrong or something interesting is about to happen.

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  11. You make an excellent point... Action verses tension... I think tension is a winner. Genre specific I also believe. Somebody once said don't start with weather, but you know I like a really good weather that pulls me into the feel of the scene. Thanks for your thoughts, very helpful! Karlene

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  12. True Lorelei, you have to be ready to let go, sometimes even the beginning! There is an encouraging trend starting though. A lot of authors are releasing a teaser chapter or two that is either a scene cut from their book or a short based on it. I'm seeing this a lot right before a book release to generate excitement. As a reader, I love it!

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  13. I think starting with action definitely has its place in genres like thrillers but I have to agree with you Lorel. For the most part if I don't know what's going on I'll lose interest as a reader. That's not to say you can't write a great action scene and catch readers, you absolutely can. But that doesn't mean you always should or have to ;)

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  14. Wow, great post on novel beginnings. Totally helpful!

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  15. Thanks Julie, I'm really glad it helped! There's more great advice in the comments if you haven't had a chance to read through those yet. Thanks for following!

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  16. This is a great point. I've read so many story starts that begin with the main character being shot, maimed, etc. And it's hard to know whether you should care when you don't know the character. Beginnings are hard. I'm on my (feels like) billionth beginning.

    On the other hand, my second book feels like it started in exactly the perfect place. I hope all that practice on the first one helped!

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  17. I couldn't agree more Portia! We have to care about what's going on. I've also noticed that the more novels I write the easier the beginning becomes! Practice makes perfect...

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