Guest Blog, by Jim Aikin.
How to Start a Novel
No, I don’t mean, “How to start writing your novel.” That’s a different topic. Lately I’ve been pondering how novelists begin their narrative: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page. The conventional wisdom is that the writer needs to hook the reader without delay by deploying an element that’s compelling, that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.
Good writers have always done this. Two thousand years ago, Virgil began the Aeneid by saying, “Arms and the hero I sing….” The singing bit was, of course, what poets were felt, at that time, to be doing. The hook is that he’s going to tell us about war and heroism.
The danger, for the aspiring or inexperienced writer, is that the opening can be handled in a cheap or misleading way. I remember taking a look not long ago (I didn’t read much past the opening) at a novel in which, in the opening scene, the viewpoint character and her boyfriend are on a picnic and are suddenly menaced by monsters. That’s certainly a grabber. The trouble is, a few pages later she wakes up. It was only a dream.
This cheats the reader: There was no actual danger in the scene. A writer who cheats the reader cannot be trusted. If you lose your reader’s trust on page five, you’re doomed. Dream openings are almost always a mistake. If you feel you have to start with a dream in order to give the reader a compelling scene, possibly you need to rethink the whole story. Or possibly you just need to relax and not try so hard.
Opening scenes with pulse-pounding action are popular these days in genre fiction. I glanced at a book this week (using Amazon’s handy Look Inside feature) that opens with the heroine shooting someone. In the first paragraph, blood spurting. That’s certainly effective as a way of getting the reader’s attention, but I would never start a book that way. Two things make me nervous about such a dramatic opener. First, where can you go from there except down? If you try to keep up that level of intensity for 300 pages, your readers will soon be exhausted and probably bored. Second, an opening that’s a shocker leaves too much unexplained. Why are these people shooting at one another? Should we care?
I prefer to start with an opening that leads the reader forward in a more subtle way. If there’s going to be a gun battle in Chapter One, start by showing your hero loading the gun. That will get our attention, and you’ll have a few pages to establish a context for the impending violence.
In the 19th century, novelists weren’t competing with TV and the movies, so they could indulge in longer, more leisurely openings. Dickens begins Nicholas Nickleby with the marriage of Nicholas’s grandfather and then lets us glimpse Nicholas’ uncle Ralph as a schoolboy. By Chapter Three, Ralph (now middle-aged) is center stage, and Nicholas himself hasn’t yet appeared. But Dickens was a master storyteller, and his readers knew it. He could get away with a slow opener.
A century before Dickens, Defoe opened Moll Flanders with a little more punch. It’s narrated in first person, and starts like this: “My true name is so well known in the records, or registers, in Newgate and at the Old Bailey, and there are some things of such consequence still depending there relating to my particular conduct, that it is not to be expected I should set my name or the account of my family to this work; perhaps after my death it may be better known; at present it would not be proper, no, not though a general pardon should be issued, even without exception of persons or crimes.”
There you have it. The narrator is telling us straight out that her conduct has been so infamous that she’s going to have to disguise her identity. As an opening hook today, the language would have to be very different, but in 1722 it was perfect.
Here’s another fine example. David Goodis is largely forgotten today; a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett, he wrote moody crime novels, including Dark Passage, which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Dark Passage opens like this: “It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.”
Writers today are admonished over and over to “show, don’t tell!” That passage from Goodis is pure telling; there’s not a speck of showing anywhere in it. Yet the telling is absolutely essential. If Parry himself protested his innocence, we would have to doubt it. Killers love to proclaim their innocence. No, the author has to tell us in order to set up the plot properly. And as an opening hook for a crime novel, that paragraph would be hard to beat.
You don’t need blood spurting. A good opening should lure the reader in by presenting the essence of your story in a provocative and somewhat mysterious way. A novel is a big, big canvas: You’ll have plenty of time to show us the blood spurting.
See more of Jim’s work at Jim Aikin’s Oblong Blob: Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary