Story Openings–Part 5: Promises to your reader
A few blogs back (6/4/2012–“Your Cast of Characters”) I made reference to an article by David Farland and mentioned a point of disagreement I had with some of his points. This time, I’m going to refer to another of his posts, but I’m going to agree with him. A lot.
The Most Important Thing at the Start of Your Novel
David says, “A good opening should promise the reader a powerful emotional impact if he or she reads on.”
He continues with:
“I’m convinced that people read stories primarily for emotional impact. If we wanted information, we’d be reading news magazines. If we wanted beautiful language, we’d go for poetry. If we wanted insight, we might be reading philosophical texts. But when we read a story, we go to it looking for a number of things.”
And he lists a few of those. As readers we have certain expectations, not the least of which is to be entertained. We also expect the author to involve us in the story–and that means emotional impact and meeting our emotional needs. When you go to see an Indiana Jones movie, a Star Wars movie, or a horror movie you have certain expectations. And that movie had better deliver or it’s going to be a box office flop.
Novels are no different. The last thing an author wants a reader to do is to quit part way through because he’s bored or disappointed. As an author, you never want to tell a reader, “It’s a little slow in the beginning, but the story really gets going on page 100.” That’s not going to cut it. If you sincerely want people to read your novel to the end, delete the first 99 pages and start at 100.
That brings me to my next point. As an author, you’ve read many books (presumably a lot of books, because you need to be a good reader before you can become a good writer), ones you truly enjoyed because they engaged you. Think back on some of your favorites, especially the most memorable ones. Ask yourself why you enjoyed them so much. Chances are you’ll say they took you places you’ve never been, or they captivated you with their stories, or the characters grabbed you and entertained you.
Now ask yourself why you kept reading the book once you started it. Put aside any personal convictions such as you always finish a book you start. And put don’t count any books recommended by friends (who vetted the book for you already). I’m talking about a book you knew nothing about (except maybe having heard it mentioned in passing), and which you discovered the joys of on your own. What compelled you to continue after the first few pages? Did something catch your attention and pull you into the story, something promised to meet your emotional needs?
As a writer, you must put yourself into the position of a reader. Avoid the temptation to spill your guts onto the page to impress the reader with your skill and knowledge. Establish an emotional connection with the reader right away. That means beginning the novel where the interesting part of the story starts, not with all the background material that sets up the story (which really begins on page 100 and which you’re convinced the reader will be lost without. Guess what? If you do your job right, you won’t need that long-winded introduction and explanation.
One of the most difficult things for new writers to hear in critiques is that, “Your story really begins on page xxx.” Just so you know, I’ve had people who critiqued some of my works say that. However, there’s a caution here. I’ve been in critique groups where one individual would find this problem with nearly every piece he or she critiqued. And only sometimes was it a valid comment. When you hear this comment, weigh it carefully and see if others feel the same way before you take it at face value.
There are two “rules” that writers hear over and over about openings:
(1) don’t begin with a flashback (and don’t put a flashback too early in the novel)
(2) don’t begin with a dream
In light of the current discussion about the emotional impact of your opening, the reason for these suggestions becomes clear. I hesitate to call them rules because that makes them sound like absolutes. Early flashbacks can reduce the emotional impact of an opening because they can dilute any tension you’ve built by pulling the reader in a different direction–even if the flashback relates directly to the opening action. You’ve crafted great opening tension, and now you shift gears and give the reader backstory (or what will feel like backstory)? Not a good idea. Yes, there are exceptions on the use of flashbacks early on, but few beginning writers will have developed the skill to pull it off. Don’t try it until you know you can do it effectively and well.
While a dream (particularly a vivid or disturbing one) may seem like a great way to grab a reader’s attention, as soon as the reader discovers it’s a dream and that the danger depicted in it was not real, he may feel cheated or duped. If so, the emotional impact dissolves and the reader’s disappointment could do more damage than good. I won’t even mention that dream openings are often seen as clichéd openings, which David Farland talked about in another post.
An interesting thing happened while I was finishing up this blog. I happened to spot the latest post from Passive Guy, one of my favorite bloggers (www.thepassivevoice.com). He pointed out David Farland’s post from 7/27/12, which dealt with–coincidentally–dream sequences.
Dream Sequences. I found it interesting because it validated what I’d already written and assured me that I’m not giving you bad advice. Check out his post.
On that note, I think that’s a good place to end. Make sure your opening connects emotionally with your reader and you’ll not only have a better novel, but you’ll improve your chance to make sales to prospective readers.