Friday, March 7, 2008

Another Book Beginning Thread

Yesterday we talked about ways to alienate your readers (and your potential agent or editor) with the beginning of your book. As Becky pointed out, you can find writers who break every one of those rules and still get published. In fact, my first little regional book to get published started with a full chapter of flowery description and flashback. The thing is, it got published despite those things not because of them. And I can’t tell you how many people said, “I loved your book! It sure picked up after the first couple of chapters.” Ugh! Not what you want to hear from your readers.

I’m sure there are some amazing books out there that start with a dreamed flashback where the protagonist cries over a flowery description of her recently dead lover. And if you’re good enough to pull that off, feel free to write in your acknowledgements, “See Savage, you don’t know anything. So, hah!”

But assuming those really are bad ways to start your novel, let’s focus on ways that will hook your reader from the beginning. Like yesterday, I don’t expect anything I say here to be a huge new flash to you, but they definitely would have helped me back in the day, and they are still good reminders even now.

First of all, let me start with what I consider to be the one of the most important things to any storywriter. This comes from the world of cinema.

Enter the scene late and leave it early.

What does that mean? Essentially it refers to the fact that beginning writers generally want to start their books before they should. Let’s say your first chapter will have a man and woman arguing about the custody of their child. It will climax with the wife saying she wants a divorce and the husband shooting at her in a drunken stupor. Cool scene right?

As the author, I want to tell the “whole” story. I don’t want my reader to be confused. So I begin with the wife waiting angrily by the door, looking out the window for her husband who is late again. I describe the room so you can see that they are financially well off. I show the pictures of their three-year-old growing up. I might have her remember how things used to be. (Or maybe a foreshadowing of how she is married to an ex-cop who still carries his gun) Finally the car pulls up. The husband staggers to the door, she opens it and shouts, “You’re late! Again!”

Are any warning bells going off in your head here? If not, go back and reread yesterday’s post. Is there any immediacy here? Is the reader quickly pulled into the scene?

How about this?

“You’re late!” Marlene shouted throwing open the door. “Although I don’t know why I even care anymore.”

Leaning slightly to one side, as though someone had cut an inch off the bottom of his right shoe, Norman blinked woodenly. Then something seemed to catch fire in his eyes and he shoved past his wife of seventeen years. “Don’t ‘magine I missed dinner,” he said with a slur Marlene had become used to.

See how we just jump right into the scene? The cool thing is that if we give the reader a few clues, they will fill in much of the boring background for us. Marlene’s first sentence tells us her mood, the probable time of day (or in this case night), and quite a bit about their relationship.

Her second sentence let’s the reader know this isn’t the first time Norman has been late, and the first sentence of the second paragraph tells us why. This is called implied history. By stating a few facts, the reader knows what has happened before without us telling them.

If I have thirteen-year-old Jordan eye the lockers of his new school and decide there is plenty of room for him inside. What does that tell you about his old school?

I could go even further in the scene above and start with something like this.

Norman staggered backward, his palm going to the bright red hand print on the side of his face. For a moment he seemed stunned that Marlene would actually strike him. A woman didn’t do that to a man—not ever. A woman needed to know her place. Then his hand went to the inside of his jacket and he was gratified to see the woman he’d been chained to for the past thirteen years back away. His fingers closed around the cold metal of the forty-five in his shoulder holster. She’d made a mistake. Quite possibly her last one.

It’s true that the reader may feel a little confused at first. Why did she hit him? Did he deserve it? But the story grabs our interest, just like overhearing a snatch of an interesting conversation between the unknown couple sitting in the booth behind us at a restaurant. Entering the scene late grabs us right away. Leaving it early makes us want to read on. I could end the chapter with him shooting wildly at her, them struggling, her calling the police. Or I could end it with him pulling the gun. Then I could start the next chapter with her boss wondering why she is late for work. Is she dead? Maybe. Or maybe something else happened. Would you keep reading?

Typically writing instructors say that you should start where the action begins. I agree and disagree with that. As we discussed on the MICE post, there is almost always more than one storyline. Which action should you begin with? It doesn’t necessarily have to be the life changing moment of the main storyline. In fact often that jumps into the story at the wrong point.

In Farworld Water, I begin with a scene where a group of boys are waiting to beat up the protagonist. I did this for a couple of reasons. The main storyline would require unearned emotion. I want you to empathize with my first protagonist (there are two) before we plunge him into the main story. And I want you to see early on that my story will involve magic. So I begin with a scene that tells us a lot of Marcus’s history and hints at what may come next. So at least consider what storyline to begin with.

What kind of hooks grab the reader most easily?

Action, action, action

Readers of all ages love action. Do you remember the first time you saw your first Indiana Jones movie. The darts flying, the spears with the skull, the giant ball rolling. I didn’t take a single bit of my popcorn during that entire scene. One of the best ways to hook a reader early is with an action scene that puts someone in jeopardy. Even better if the person in peril is a woman or a child, because readers root for them right away.

The Explosive Beginning

While this could be action, it doesn’t have to be. Essentially it is starting with something so compelling that you have to read more. An example of that above would be the man reaching for his gun after the woman has slapped him.

Unexpected dialog

Snappy dialog is always a good way to grab the readers attention. Just make sure whatever they are talking about is interesting. Boring is bad. Repeat that ten times. If you opened the first page of a book and read, “Someone’s trying to kill me,” would you read at least a couple of lines more?

What did you just say?

I have a really fun urban fantasy I will finish one day that starts with this line. “The problem with human heads is they always turn up in the most inconvenient places.” Would you read more? The idea here is that you starting with something so unexpected and compelling you must read more. Dean Koontz is the king of this method.

Creating a bond to one or more characters

Make me care about the character right away. Often this is done through internal monologue. I once started a book like this.

“They say the human subconscious is capable of picking up hidden danger signals long before the conscious mind is aware that anything’s wrong. The senses tingle. The small hairs on the back of the neck stand. Adrenaline races through the body. It’s supposed to be a holdover from the times when having a bad day meant ending up inside a sabertooth’s belly.

Well, maybe I’m just not in touch with my inner cavewoman. Or maybe my receiver was on the fritz that day. Whatever the case, I don’t remember feeling any sense of peril, no premonitions of impending doom, as I reached the top of the rise revealing the house on the hillside.”

Do you like her? Would you read more?

Finally, keep it short and sweet—cut, cut, cut

Details are great, especially if they create a mood. But don’t dawdle. Grab my interest and hold on like you’re gripping a tiger by the tail. If you can hold me for the whole first chapter, I’m willing to cut you a break farther in. But if you lose me on the first page, don’t expect me to come back.

Well that’s it, gang. We did a week of blogs straight. Hopefully it was fun for you. I know it was for me. I’m going to take a break over the weekend. Okay, actually I starting Farworld book two. On Monday I want to talk a little bit about promotion. I have a YA fantasy I’m sending out into a world teeming with YA fantasy. How can I possibly hope to stay afloat? Even more importantly, how can I stand out? Also I have a fun new poll. And a hint about how you can get your hands on an advanced reader copy of Book One.


Brian said...

Great post. I should probably take notes on some of these ways to start a story. They are really good. I can't wait for you to post that new poll. In fact, today was my last day for my poll. I'll be sure to come up with another one though. I also can't wait for the hint at how to get an advanced reader copy. When are you going to post them? I'm guessing your not going to post it tomorrow though, considering this was supposed to be tomorrows post. Bye.

Melinda said...

Wow. This has been so helpful. I can't thank you enough. I think I have narrowed my beginning down to one of two places. I'll play around with them and see which works best. Now I can get five pages of my MS in for critiquing. Very cool. You are so awesome.

Very good info all week.

J Scott Savage said...

Brian and Melinda, I'm gald you liked it. remember none of these are hard and fast. But if they help even a little with making your story stronger, it's totally worth it. Just remember I've got dibs on a signed copy of your first published book.

I'll do my next post Monday which will actually be about marketing and I'm going to ask for your help.

Brian said...

Cool. I can't wait to help you sell your book. By the way, I was just wondering why Borders, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble have no info on you or your book. Also, do you have a cover for Farworld yet?

Julie Wright said...

Amen! Perfect examples.

J Scott Savage said...

Believe me, when there is a cover, I will be flashing it all around like a kid with the $20 bill he got for his birthday. I am supposed to have the ARCs by May which means the art work will be done before then, but Brandon has a lot of things going on at the same time, so I just have to wait patiently.

I'll probably get an ISBN number and show up on Amazon/BN about the same time.

Sean Ashby said...

I have to say, I lllllove the line about heads. Best first line ever (well, that I've read anyway).