Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Starting a Novel

I was asked a question yesterday by someone wanting to write a novel. Where do I start?

For the sake of keeping this post short, let's not go into details on how your first step should be research, outlines, character sketches, synopses, plus creating subplots, internal conflict, and the entire details of the setting. Let's assume the question asker meant "what should my first scene be?"

A lot of resources will tell you to start where your story gets exciting. This website suggests starting with your hero in immediate danger. Or the "the discovery of the body, not the detective commuting to work or reading the morning newspaper."

This website gives the worst advice of all. "Unveil the back story to your novel by using flashbacks and narrative reminiscences in the first chapter."

But here's one that gets it right. "The first chapter should begin just before a pivotal event in your protagonist’s life."

"Begin just before" is the key phrase there. It's my opinion that you have to set up the normal life of the protagonist first, before you set things in motion. It's the only way the reader can understand why the pivotal event is so pivotal. Usually the normal life is unhappy in some way. After all, you can't have a happy ending without an unhappy beginning.

Let's jump into a few examples.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone started with Harry living under the stairs at his aunt and uncle's house. He was entirely miserable, having to endure a trip to the zoo to celebrate his cousin's birthday. Then the pivotal event happened...an owl showed up with an invitation to a school.

If we were going to take the advice of the first website, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone would've started with the owl. We would've learned about Harry's home life through backstory and flashbacks. The problem with that is you have to pause the linear story to go back and give information. It would read like--Harry gets the invitation from the owl. It's really exciting for him because his life was so miserable. For example, there was this one time at the zoo...

It doesn't work as well. You have to stop all forward motion with the owl and put the reader's curiosity on hold. You also have the added problem of Show vs Tell working correctly. A good writer will SHOW Harry miserable, rather than saying he was.

Another example is the movie Speed. It doesn't start with everyone on the bus learning there is a bomb aboard. It starts with us learning that Annie lost her license, and with Jack responding to a threat in an elevator, plus how he interacts with his partner. So later when his partner dies, we understand the magnitude of his loss. We also understand why the bomb on the bus is personal for Jack.

Lord of the Rings starts in a happy, utopia called the shire. The unhappiness surrounding it is that Bilbo is losing his mind.

A Christmas Carol doesn't start with Scrooge being warned he'll be visited by ghosts. It starts with him at work, hating Christmas, treating people badly, and all around not a nice person.

The Matrix starts with Neo as a boring, unhappy computer programmer.

You'll always find exceptions to the rule. There are plenty of stories that begin with a man running for his life through an alley, or a woman being murdered. Watchmen started with a murder. Desperate Housewives started with a suicide. Pretty much every crime show on television starts with a body. But then again, we see those characters every week, and it isn't until the 4th or 5th episode do we want to learn more about their regular lives.

My advice is to know the genre you are writing in. Go to the library and get several of the most popular books currently out. Where do they start? Murder Mystery might start with a body. Historical fiction might start with a protagonist on a stroll through Victorian England. Fantasy most likely starts with a farm boy or bar maid.

For crap's sake don't copy these stories. All I'm saying is know if the genre typically starts with the pivotal moment, or right before. Does the farm boy perform his miserable chores for a drunkard father before the evil sorceror shows up?


Tabitha Shay said...

This is great! And some wonderful examples! Good,strong advice for the beginner author...Bait your hook from the very beginning...set it when you get your nibble and reel your readers in....Tabs

Maggie Dove said...

Great advice for new authors starting out! Thanks for the interesting reading!


Ginger Simpson said...

Laura, wonderful post and, like Tab said, some wonderful examples. Unfortunately very little works for me because I'm not a plotter. I never know where my story is heading until the character begins telling me the tale. The main character introduces the others to me as I go. Honestly...I know it sounds strange, but my stories are all character generated.

My job is to hone the opening hook and try to find a place to end each chapter with one. But as far as planning...my characters are in charge. I'm just the fingers who type the story. :) Plotting never works for me.

s7anna said...

Hey Laura,
This was a really insightful post! I'm not a writer but your points really illuminated thoughts that would have never occurred to me otherwise. Very well presented as well.

Happy Reading!!!
Anna Shah Hoque

booklover0226 said...

This was an interesting post; I enjoyed reading it.

Tracey D

Personalized Marketing said...

Informative yet with a personality, great post!

Speed is an all time favorite of mine, so it was nice to stop and remember the movie.

Personalized Marketing

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the excellent advice! You really explain your point well so that any newbie to the world of writing can glean the importance of hooking the reader at the beginning!