Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Beginnings


The beginning. It's the door to your novel and you want people to open it and make themselves at home. But how to accomplish this? Do you begin softly? With a big bang? Throw the reader into the room milling with people? I believe, in this case, that not one size fits all.

Thrillers demand you throw your reader straight into the action. Within a few sentences your protagonist is in danger or has danger creeping up behind him. The beginning must be fast-paced and (let's face it) thrilling. Character introductions are minimal, simply because this genre's characters are instantly recognizable. There will always be some form of the brave hero, the faithful sidekick (usually of the opposite sex), and the villain bent on world domination. Bring on the hungry sharks.

There are also the books that begin in the middle; in mysteries this could mean the discovery of a body before the first paragraph is finished. I have found mystery readers wait hungrily for that first body, so I either throw it at them right at the beginning or tell them in no uncertain terms who is not going to be coming to dinner. Once the body (or the hint of one) has been given, many mystery readers will sit back and happily get filled in on the action leading up to that point.

Then there are the soft beginnings in which the reader is gently introduced to the novel's world and the people that inhabit it. These beginnings work nicely in humorous novels; after all, you have to know the world right-side-up before you turn it topsy-turvy.

Another problem: What is considered to be the beginning? Is it the first sentence? The first paragraph? The first chapter? Common sense has taught me if I haven't hooked my reader by the end of the first chapter, I'm sunk. People judge quickly and harshly. Reading a book, after all, is something one does for pleasure. Bad beginnings almost always ensure a book may be started, but never finished.

Pace is also important; a fast-paced beginning can't slide into a meandering trot through the middle. However starting slowly gives an author plenty of opportunity to quicken the pace as the danger or the comic mayhem increases.

How do you approach your beginnings? With a body? Hungry sharks? Everyone sitting down to tea? Or is it with a description of a sunlit meadow and three horses grazing peacefully in the dappled shade of a large elm tree?



23 comments:

  1. I drop my readers right into the action.

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  2. What a great question, Elspeth! Beginnings can really be the "hook" that gets a reader interested in a novel right away, so they are important. You make a very well-taken point, too, that a good beginning depends critically on the kind of novel the author is writing.

    I tend to introduce the reader to the characters first, before the murder. I do that because I want the reader to know who's murdered and who the suspects are. Not only do I think that makes my characters more real, but also, in my humble opinion, that lets the reader match wits with the murder and try to figure out who/whydunnit before my sleuth does : ).

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  3. I try to combine character and plot by introducing the protagonist as he's in some sort of high-pressure situation, right from the first sentence.

    Absolutely no mention of meadows, butterflies, or sunsets. And the only thing getting "dappled" is the villain.

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  4. I've only completed two books--the first started at the beginning... getting to know the characters. And while I love it, as have the people I've had read it (most of whom love me, so it's hard to say how objective this is), I am having a heck of a time convincing agents to pick up. I am POSITIVE it is because it starts too slow for a first novel.

    My second has a murder in chapter one, and a narrow escape from a pedophile in chapter 2. It is part of a Trilogy, but that FAST dive in led to a REALLY fast write--the adrenaline coursed and before I knew it it was written. I suspect that will be an easier sell (though I'm not trying until the Trilogy is finished).

    I think the first is the more complex and richer work--the second would probably be read by more people though, were they both to come out together, in some odd twist of fate. I just think there are more people that need to be sucked in fast than there are patient people who like to savor a slower reward. (sadly I am the latter, and fewer and fewer of that style seem to get through)

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  5. Carolyn; Interesting. Good for you.

    Margot; We seem to have a similar approach. I let my reader get to know everyone and then let them find out what's going on behind the masks.

    Alan; I'd like to see a dappled villain! Could sharks be responsible?

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  6. Hart; We must have posted at the same time! I share your opinion, it seems 'fast is best' for many people. I may have to do some more tinkering...

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  7. Elspeth I actually never thought about how different genres might start differently. I do think the first cahpter is critical though. Sometimes I will toss the sequence to pull the action first and then go back and catch everyone up about how we got there.

    On the other hand the obsession with having the perfect opening line I think is a bit over the top. A good line- but I've never put a book down because the first line wasn't a grabber. I'm not Simon Cowell for godsake!

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  8. I'd say the first five pages are so are the most important. They decide for me whether I'll keep reading or not. Even a so-so opening line won't deter me as much as getting to page five and realizing I just don't like the writer's style.

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  9. I've started with a humorous exchange for 2 books, a prologue w/ a body for one book.

    This is a great subject, Elspeth, and I'm enjoying everyone's answers!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  10. I'm so glad you found me so that I could find you! In my murder mystery, the dearly departed is mentioned in the first paragraph. Then, we go back and "meet" her, then we solve her murder. In my women's fiction novel, we get into the mc's world and then the action and mayhem speed up from about the end of the first 1/3 of the book onwards. In the YA novel I'm writing, the tension is bubbling just below the surface throughout. I'm about 2/3 through, and I'm pretty sure all hell's about to break lose!

    So, yes, I suppose it does depend somewhat on the genre, and even within genres, the beginning/middle/end may vary greatly. Thanks for such a thought-provoking topic!!

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  11. Laurie; It is an interesting thought; different openings for different genres. Glad (and somewhat relieved) to find out you're not Simon Cowell).

    Stephanie; The first five pages is a fairly good indicator of whether to keep going or not.

    Elizabeth; A humorous exchange...interesting. Perhaps I should start boing up on some witty banter.

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  12. Debra; Welcome! Your murder mystery beginning sounds very similar to mine. You have my admiration for being able to write in different genres. Wow.

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  13. Great thought-provoking question!

    As for me, it depends on the story. One of my novels that I'm finishing, I have an-almost dead body by the 2nd page, and the guy's dead by the end of the chapter. Another story, which is more of a thriller than a mystery, I move things in gradually, let the reader see what's 'normal', and let the reader see the bad guys in their plotting.

    When I'm reading a mystery, if there's not an obvious mystery by the end of the first couple of chapters, I lose most of my interest, unless the characters are interesting or an intriguing subplot has already started.

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  14. I've only written one book-a memoir. The beginning got changed so many times and I'm still not totally satisfied with it. In novels, if I'm not hooked in the first few pages, I tend to not want to keep reading, so I agree with those who've already said the hook needs to happen right up front.
    karen

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  15. For me, the first few pages are usually indicative of whether or not the author has succeeding in getting my attention. However, sometimes those first pages are a lead-in wherein I'm at the "I'm not exactly sure what is going on here or what's going to happen and I HAVE to know" point.

    Most generally though I consider the first chapter to be a tell-all. If I want (or absolutely HAVE) to, at that point continue, chances are I'm about to read a good book.

    Many times the back cover synopsis suffices in giving a pretty good indication of what to expect...sometimes that alone will keep me reading, even if the first pages or even the first chapter start rather slow.

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  16. Liberty; Interesting characters are great, but the plot's the thing, isn't it?

    Karen; Every book needs that hook. I'm finding it interesting reading people's responses to how long they'll wait for it.

    Crystal; I think the first chapter is crucial. I don't think many people read beyond it if they're not hooked by then. My only complaint about back covers is sometimes they make the book sound better than it is!

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  17. I try to have tea with the sharks and dead body as invited guests...

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  18. Laura; Well done! I'm sure the sharks appreciate it; no one invites them to tea very often!

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  19. I try to start mine off quickly, with something to "hook" the reader in the first paragraph - or the first page at the latest.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

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  20. I start running right out of the gate. And hope I don't trip and stumble. Another thing I do is try to build up a lot of questions in the early chapters and supply very few answers.

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  21. My twin brother always reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's advice, which was "Always begin as close to the middle of the story as possible."

    I usually try to begin w/ some sort of action rather than description. I find that hooks readers in.

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  22. Wow, I really enjoyed reading this. It gave me much to think about. I think my beginnings are less about easing in but instead grab the reader. I would like the reader to say "what"? And then "Give me more".

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  23. Hi Elsbeth-
    This is precisely what I am trying to figure out! You provided some good food for thought. :-)

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