Novel openings revisited
I’ve talked many times about the importance of your opening. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a novel or a short story. In today’s world where instant gratification seems to be more the rule of the day, if you don’t hook your readers right away, you risk losing readers before they’ve gotten very far.
Readers will usually give a novel at least 10 pages before deciding; some may give you 30-50. In a short story it’s too easy to put it down, so you may have less than a page to grab the reader.
Before I go further with this, I want to mention one hook that is often not mentioned in the discussion of openings: your title. A strong title can do a lot toward hooking a reader—or not. As examples, here are the titles of 30 of the stories recently submitted to Fabula Argentea magazine. Some of these intrigue, while others seems rather bland.
She is the Sun
Good Thomas, Best Thomas
Lost With Miss Information
No Man’s Land
On The Water’s Edge
Nailing The Sale
Our Cat Wouldn’t be a Demon
The Quantum Domesticator
The Time Dad Took Me to a Whorehouse
Fruit of the Earth
The Night It Rained All Night
Most of these stories are very good stories, often better than their titles, although not all of these titles inspire confidence. We never decline or ignore a story based on the title. We give each author’s story proper consideration because we believe it’s part of our job as editors not to pre-judge. However, while we usually read stories in the order they arrive, sometimes we’ll sometimes we’ll read a story sooner if the title intrigues us.
But readers do judge by titles as well as by book covers. I’ve definitely looked into some novels simply because the titles intrigued me. Therefore, as I’ve said before on this blog, do not overlook your title or settle for one that’s mediocre.
This leads me to my next and most important point: Keeping the reader’s attention once you’ve grabbed it, however you did it.
A recent article on the “Live Write Thrive” blog intrigued me: THE BURDEN OF YOUR FIRST 50 PAGES
Even though the article also contains an advertisement for a critique service, you do not need to pay for a professional critique to ensure that your opening is sound. Good beta readers, people you trust as readers (usually not family members) to give you honest advice, can serve just as well.
In the article, Lakin gives a link to her “First Page Checklist,” which contains some good advice on things to look at in your opening. I’ve provided that link separately below.
However, not all of these points on the checklist apply to every novel plot. I’ve commented on some that I consider important for most situations.
The opening hook can be anything that grabs the reader: clever or strong writing, an unusual voice or perspective, an interesting situation, a startling event, a memorable line:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Do you need to introduce the main character in the first few lines? Most of the time this is good advice, but there are many exceptions. The first Harry Potter novel didn’t. Not every story’s main character needs to appear initially. Some novels talk about the main character long before you get to meet him or her. Sometimes introducing the situation is more important, depending on the story you telling. What is important is a hook that will carry the reader through the story.
Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening) is usually a good idea, as is setting the tone of the novel early on.
The rest of the items in the checklist I will leave up to you to consider and evaluate based on your story. I will point out that this checklist seems to assume that one size fits all, which is my primary complaint about so many articles on writing. They assume you are writing a particular kind of novel. This list seems more appropriate for action, suspense, thriller novels. Articles by romance authors focus on elements for that genre and seem to forget that not all novels are romances.
However, regardless of the type of novel you’re writing, it’s important to make sure that the story isn’t bogged down by excessive backstory, descriptions, or explanations, that your reader isn’t confused, and that your reader is properly immersed on the story.
One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is to assume that the reader will be interested in their writing just because the writer is interested in it. That’s rarely the case. Readers want a good story, not self-indulgent writing.
I’m going to end this post with the opening of Valentine: Act I of II by Elliott Morreau. I plan to interview Elliott in the next few weeks to talk about his novel (which is the first of two parts, as the title suggests). His opening hits all the important points and sets the tone for everything that follows. You can read more of it in the excerpt online at Amazon. Pick up a copy of the novel if it intrigues you.
From the stars above bleeds a tide of purple-orange waves that sinks the anchored big dipper and the little archer’s knee known as Sagittarius. The two lovers look at the stars in the sky and they can feel the steady heart of the city moving the nightlife as efficiently as blood through veins. But to Jack and Lia, Vancouver is no longer a concern—I am. Subconsciously, anyway.
I sit here in the stars, looking down upon them. I can see Lia attentively staring at my men sitting row on row in yellow lab coats. I can see that she hears all their clapping and cheering as they watch Jack slowly lower his hand to her waist. For a brief moment, I wonder what she thinks when she sees that I, the writer, do not cheer, do not clap, and do not move to the cries of my fellow men. Does she know who I am? How I, the narrator of the story, her story, plan to tell it? Does she know that she is merely my puppet? I lean forward and smile at her with my notebook in hand. I look down at the empty pages that will soon be full of her story, and as I write this very observation, I feel as if she knows everything. It almost makes me want to end the story here. It chills me to think that when she and I look eye to eye, she knows for sure I do in fact exist. But I guess it makes this ending so much easier to swallow.
To distract the two lovers and ease my fears in absurdity, I summon a summer breeze from the Vancouver skyline that smells like fresh, sweaty, first-time, teenage sex. I watch it send a force up Lia’s knee-length, near-white dress, revealing pink, chaste panties seemingly an inch thick, calling for her to be laid.