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Are the "authorities" wrong about how to start a novel? (1 Viewer)

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luckyscars

WF Veterans
I laughed at how bad that was, then set the book down with no intention of reading it.

That's interesting, because "My brother was the king of nowhere" is most definitely mysterious and, depending entirely on what sort of book it is, it could be appropriate.

I look for basically three things in an opening:

- Flawless delivery. I don't want any indications of incompetency or juvenilia. A hell of a lot of self-published novels read like fanfiction. I would actually count...

All five of us looked that way -- me, Mom, Dan, my sisters Rose and Sidney, all of our heads swiveled in masse


...as sounding pretty juvenile. Heads that swivel in masse? Give me a break. Besides the image being ridiculous, heads don't swivel and rarely in unison, it's en masse not in masse as a French loan phrase. Is it a big deal? Of course not, not in itself, but these are the kinds of silly little details that suggest the writer is not at a professional level. It's not quite terrible, but it would certainly make me distrustful of what was to come and if the subsequent sentences were like this I would probably stop.

The other things I look for in openings...

- Originality. I don't want an opener that feels like it could have come from a thousand others. I don't want the book to start with the character waking up and seeing the sunlight at their window. I don't want the book to start with family breakfast. I mean, sure there are ways to redoing the classics in a fresh way, but generally speaking these are warning signs. I don't want a book that starts with a description of weather or of cities.

- Assertion. This one is tricky. Basically, the opening needs to not equivocate, there should be no vagueness in terms of time and place (unless that's the intent, but even then).

A good example of an opener, possibly one of the best in the world, is De Maurier's Rebecca:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited. No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.
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If I was going to nitpick this, I would probably remove 'I dreamt' from the first line. It's not necessary, as it is mentioned it being a dream a few sentences later, and feels a little bit like equivocation. Why not "Last night I went to Manderley again"? However, this sense of vagueness, of separation, is quickly dispensed with with the pure, rich detail that follows regarding the rust on the gate and the windows. It feels like the author knows exactly what she is trying to say and that, perhaps, is the best way to achieve power. Openers must be POWERFUL.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
To me, that's exactly how she has captured her reader / audiobook listener - with clever and entertaining prose and MC personality. If that's the thing that involves the reader in the plot, then so be it. Other writers might use an inciting incident, or a curious deviation from the norm, or a tense moment of action, or a vivid description, to hook their reader. Just ... something. I think uncertainty around this point sets in where people think capturing the reader's attention must adhere to one form. It needn't, to my mind.

Yep. Lot's of people seem to have missed my point that something entertaining needs to involve the reader (hook), but it need not be immediate involvement in the plot's focus. Maybe I didn't hammer that hard enough, or my comment was so long that people forgot the point by the end. LOL
 

Sam

General
Patron
Can you share? And one of your failed first paragraphs? I like examples.

It was the opening to a military thriller:

In the stairwell of the apartment on Lubyanka Square, the semi-naked man tossed his briefcase down three flights, then leapt over the banister as the door above crashed open and two men sprinted after him.

And from the first novel I ever wrote:

Peter Hunt awoke at 5:37 a.m. to watch the sunrise.

And from my current WiP:

On the morning Jeff Morton found Jesús, his wife called to tell him she wanted a divorce, his son called him an asshole, and his boss called to fire him.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
In the stairwell of the apartment on Lubyanka Square, the semi-naked man tossed his briefcase down three flights, then leapt over the banister as the door above crashed open and two men sprinted after him.

On the morning Jeff Morton found Jesús, his wife called to tell him she wanted a divorce, his son called him an asshole, and his boss called to fire him.

On the scale of 1 to 10 in interestingness, these seem to both be tens. Are you saying that the first line has to be this interesting to get out of the slush pile? I would believe that.

I am going to guess that the second start is followed by a retelling of Jeff's morning. I am also going to guess that no other chapters of your book begin with a summary of what is going to happen in that chapter.

And, I am guessing, you hope I understand that you usually don't begin your chapters with a summary of what is going to happen. And, if you are asking, if you begin all your chapter in your other book like that first start, I think you are going to have a best-seller. Unless the next sentence moves back in time.

Your starts also do a good job of advertising what your book is going to be like. The one line is high-action, and the Russian-sounding name suggests military. Written in what might be called purpleless prose.
 
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Sam

General
Patron
On the scale of 1 to 10 in interestingness, these seem to both be tens. Are you saying that the first line has to be this interesting to get out of the slush pile? I would believe that.

Thank you.

Yes, your first line should always leave the reader with more questions than it answers.

I am going to guess that the second start is followed by a retelling of Jeff's morning. I am also going to guess that no other chapters of your book begin with a summary of what is going to happen in that chapter.

Not necessarily a re-telling, but certainly a quick recap before moving on with the rest of the chapter. And, no, the other chapters won't have a summary.

And, I am guessing, you hope I understand that you usually don't begin your chapters with a summary of what is going to happen. And, if you are asking, if you begin all your chapter in your other book like that first start, I think you are going to have a best-seller. Unless the next sentence moves back in time.

Correct. Everything after that first sentence moves forward.

That's why it's important to nail your hook so that you can segue into the nitty-gritty afterward. But the story has to retain the sense of intrigue and mystery going forward, or the reader will get bored and put the book down after a few chapters.

Your starts also do a good job of advertising what your book is going to be like. The one line is high-action, and the Russian-sounding name suggests military. Written in what might be called purpleless prose.

While "purple prose" has its use within certain literary genres, in a thriller it would be more of a distraction than anything.

But I appreciate the compliment nonetheless.
 

Foxee

Patron
Patron
It can be annoying to feel like there is a false imperative or a made-up rule. Good advice, however, you can take or leave, use or not.

What's really wrong, though, with being encouraged to be interesting? We're not really shooting for the opposite as writers, after all.

When I'm choosing a book, especially from an unfamiliar author, the first page is a sample of how they write. A good hook is great, it's fun, it makes it easy to get into the story quickly which I do like. I'm also looking at the author's voice and style and can I stand to ride along with them for the duration of a whole book. It needs to be solid all the way through...so I'm actually asking for the whole book to be as good as the hook, if possible. Demanding reader, I know!

What grabs someone from the get-go is subjective. I just read a novel that started with an aerial view of the landscape that turned out to be the path of a bullet, very appropriate for the title Long Range and, to me, interesting and well written. Would everyone have been into this universally? Of course not.

A hook without a strong style, voice, and story is just a gimmick.

Perhaps some of the frustration toward this idea of being told to grab the reader right away has to do with finished drafts vs. getting the story ideas down initially. At least for me, it's intimidating to see others' finished work that's been through rounds and rounds of refinement and feel like I have to do that first time out of the gate with a draft.
 

apocalypsegal

Senior Member
Good writers break them all the time

And the key word being "good writers".

Like any advice, you can ignore it if you can sell it to the reader. That's the key. Or, sell it to your agent, who then sells it to an acquisitions editor.

Another thing, the way things were written decades ago doesn't really apply today. Readers are different, they're exposed to tremendous amounts of books that we just didn't see in the 70s. And even then, the writing books told us to hook the reader within the first sentence, or at least the first paragraph. And if not then, before the end of the first page. Even in the 70s, people were reading the first page and making decisions about whether to pick up a book or not. Or they were looking at the back cover copy.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
These are my own observations about it as a reader for what they are worth.

I don't think that there has to be action in the first few lines or even first page, but you have to feel IN the story or WITH the story almost immediately or else why would you bother? Being allowed to put 2 and 2 together yourself with what the author is showing not telling seems to really help put you into the book. But then conflict is what intrigues you to keep reading. Conflict can be about an all-out shoot-out or it can be the subtle hint from a parent that they disapprove of their child's desire to paint.

Backstory can have all of this, so it's okay to have it if it is offering what you need to launch you into the book and keep you hooked. You can feel like the backstory is happening to you. You can put conflict in the backstory. I can also get super annoyed if I feel like the author is just having a nostalgia trip for themselves instead of building suspense in that backstory.

Suspense. Alfred Hitchock taught the principal of suspense in an interview once kind of like this: if you detonate a bomb then you only get the satisfaction of the explosion (action only) but if you show a bomb being placed (preferably with a timer) and people you care about who are about to be blown up in that space not knowing about the bomb... then you have suspense. Which one will keep you at the edge of your seat for an hour? Yeah.... I think this is an important thing to know about hooking people.

I am actually really picky about which books I keep reading. That first page is pretty darn important.

A random bonus FYI from me: One of the coolest first chapters that I've read recently was in Nobel-prize winner Halldor Laxness's Independent People. The first chapter sets the scene of the Icelandic landscape by telling bloody and chilling ghost stories about the history of a ghost named Columkili (or something like that) who lives there. The author then introducing the main character who buys the land. No one else has dared for years--generations have been harried by Columkili in failure after failure as well as possessions and insanity. The man is feeling very optimistic about his own abilities to run a successful sheep farm there. He looks out over the grass and the waterfall and the wind and curses Columkili out loud and tempts Columkili to do his worst, he is not afraid. The next chapter is this man getting married and bringing his young bride to his dugout. Brrr... gives me chills just thinking of it. What an awesome way to introduce conflict and introduce character! .. oh I've got to go read that again. It's much better than I can describe. Genius!
 
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