Writing a Great Beginning
by Alison Goodman
A short while back, in preparation for a writing workshop I was about to run, I asked a few international publishers and literary agents what they looked for in the first two pages of a novel. Here are a few highlights of their advice:
Great answers, and every one of them is essentially about emotion. How the writing is making the reader feel: compelled, intrigued, in safe hands, engaged, and at the very basic level, interested enough to keep reading. And that is the key to a great opening: make your reader feel something. As writers, our trade is to create a journey of emotion for our readers whether it is the peaks and troughs of joy and grief, the thrill of suspense, or the intrigue of brilliant worlds and ideas.
But how do you actually achieve this emotional engagement, particularly in the first few pages of your novel?
First, let me just say that I write genre novels – fantasy, science fiction, crime – and that my advice about openings is tuned to that kind of book. In my novels the main protagonist makes decisions in response to large external events that usually have life and death stakes (plot arc), and every one of those decisions contribute to an irretrievable change within that protagonist (character arc). Having said that, I believe the same basic requirement of emotional engagement is important in any kind of storytelling. When I read, I want to be emotionally engaged and that is what I aim to achieve in my writing. It is also what I teach, so the following strategies are geared towards creating maximum reader engagement. They won’t suit everyone or every type of fiction, but maybe there will be a few ideas that click with you and your writing.
So, first, let’s look at one of the main challenges for the maximum engagement writer – creating an immediately sympathetic protagonist, a character who the reader wants to follow through the next 80,000 + words.
This, of course, assumes you are writing the whole novel through the point of view (POV) of one main character. For the purposes of this article, that is the assumption I will make, as I don’t have the space to address shifting points of view or omniscience. So, if you have one main character in your novel, then it makes sense to have him or her up front in that very first scene to establish who the reader is expected to bond with and follow.
If the protagonist does not appear in the first scene, then there should be a good story structure reason behind that decision. An example of this would be the crime or horror story that starts with a victim who is killed by the end of the first chapter, and then in the second chapter the sympathetic detective character appears to track down the killer. Yet even in this scenario, the writer’s first scene job is the same: to create enough sympathy/interest in that victim so that their death creates a compelling question that can only be answered by reading the book.
Back to that main protagonist on page one. First anchor the protagonist (and thus the reader) in time and place. That starts to give the writing that elusive quality of authority mentioned in the first quote. Readers want to be placed in a time and setting, although not laboriously. Think of the three s’s, and be selective, specific and sparing in your descriptions. Definitely do not info dump your entire setting/world history/character background at the beginning of your novel. Nearly all of the agents and publishers I contacted cited info dumping as a sure fire way of losing their interest. Info dumping is tedious to read, distances the reader from the action, and in most cases the majority of it is not absorbed because there are too many details in one dense lump. Of course every novel has background and world information that must be supplied to the reader, but it needs to be sparing and carefully placed in the novel for maximum effect.
Here’s an interesting exercise if you are in the early drafts of your novel – take a look at the third or fourth paragraph of your first page. Does it work better as an opening paragraph? It is amazing how often this is the case –the first two or three paragraphs are often just “warm up” with far too much setting and background – then, BAM, the writing takes off in the third or fourth paragraph with some action.
Which is my next point; introduce your protagonist and their world through action. I don’t mean the kind of action that requires a grenade launcher aimed at their arch nemesis (although that can sometimes work), but in some kind of situation that is dramatic. And by dramatic I mean creating a scene using the show don’t tell method of writing. Show your protagonist dealing with some kind of conflict using dialogue, actions, and thoughts. Conflict is the cornerstone of drama and for a compelling read, most of your scenes should be built around some type of conflict, whether it be the inner conflict of your character (e.g. ethical, moral) or external (e.g. other characters, environment, society). I would also say it is preferable that this first scene conflict is external as that gives an opportunity to introduce other characters, and with them can come deftly shown information about the world and the place of your protagonist within it.
The way your protagonist deals with the conflict should show some sign to the reader that he or she is interesting enough to want to follow through a whole novel. The protagonist does not have to be victorious – in fact it is probably more effective if they are not (think Harry and the Dursleys) – but they do have to show some quality that makes us warm towards them or identify with them, or aspire to be like them. Personally, I always feel warm towards the indomitable character (I reside with a Jack Russell terrier), but other qualities are forbearance, kindness, self-sacrifice, and defense of the weak. You get the idea. And again, by plunging the reader straight into the immediacy of a scene, you are asking them to build up a picture of your world for themselves through the dynamic mode of dramatic action – which in itself creates reader engagement. It also shows that you are confident enough to let your scenes develop your story, and that is about as authoritative as you can get.
So now we have a protagonist who is in the middle of a conflict and dealing with it as best they can. Within the dialogue and action of that scene is the deftly woven-in setting that anchors the reader and creates the “world” in which they live. Now comes the most important part; building in the questions that will ultimately be answered throughout the novel. The questions that will keep the reader glued to your book until 3 am on a work/school day, and for which they must find the answer, because you have made them care about your protagonist and made the stakes so important that they cannot put your book down.
Again, you don’t want to pile in all the questions of the novel in one lump at the beginning like a thematic info dump, and it is essential for a successful novel that new questions and their answers are staggered throughout the book. However, in your opening you will at least want to start seeding in the information that will create some of that driving need to know more. And if you want a really tight, thematically linked opening then consider making that first scene conflict work as a launching pad for at least one of your novel’s big questions (and by that I mean one of the questions that takes the whole novel to answer). Construct your opening scene as a micro version of the conflicts to come with the big question embedded within it. For example, in the first scene of my novel EON (aka The Two Pearls of Wisdom), the main character Eon is bullied by a sword instructor who pronounces our hero a disgrace with no chance of becoming a dragoneye. And embedded within that humiliation scene is the first big question of the novel – will Eon become a dragoneye?
There is a lot more I could say about openings – I haven’t touched on scene construction, or character portals or dilemmas, for instance. Nevertheless, the above is a good starting point. Just remember, your first scene is your calling card. It not only sets up your novel, it will go a long way towards your carefully prepared three chapter submission shifting from a slush pile to that other exciting stack: request full manuscript.
Copyright Alison Goodman 2011