I’ve judged innumerable contests and read for a couple of magazines. Nine times out of ten, when a story fails to grab me, it’s because the beginning is fuzzy and we hit page 10 and I’m still trying to figure who I’m going to follow around and whose story this is.
I was reminded of this today because we were talking at the dinner table (well, we all write, you know) of spaceships maneuvering in space, and how fascinating it can look visually, but how a friend who presented a manuscript to our writers’ group went on for five? Ten pages? Describing a spaceship docking in minute detail when we had no reason to care. I took a little nap with my eyes open, I confess. There were no people in sight, no real worldbuilding beyond “oh, look, spaceships.” Just… things moving around in space. Okay then.
This could be an effective opening for someone with a long running series. Say, David Weber. Have ships we care about, and we’ll be spellbound, but that’s because we already know those people and they already matter to us.
However, out of the blue and cold? Noooooo.
Let’s imagine my book Darkship Thieves was made into a movie. Yeah, I know. But picture it in your mind.
Camera panning surface of the Earth with artificial isles. Then off to space, at speed, then pan the power trees, and near it, the spaceship.
Inside, as Athena wakes.
Now let’s talk about why those shots – likely shown while the “front titles” whatever they’re called by normal human beings – are there.
They’re there, because, in those moments when your husband – well my husband – is going “ooh, he’s the producer? He hasn’t done anything since—” Or “Oh, this is based on a book by that chick Sarah Hoyt? If I knew, I wouldn’t have come.” You’re absorbing the gist of the images. Maybe not the details, but enough to go”ooh, futuristic tech, so far in future” and “coolness and all, there’s something glowy in space, I wonder what it is.” And then “Space vehicle of some sort” Pan inside, chick sits up grabs blanket, attacks someone in the dark, and runs, and you know you found your character, and this is when the words stop flashing on the screen and—
The story has begun.
When I was starting to mentor people, I was told that most beginning writers start the story ten to fifty pages too early. I didn’t believe it, since my invariable habit is starting the story too late, and then having to backtrack to find the real exciting part.
But when I started to see beginning writers born and raised in the US, particularly those who are younger than I, I started seeing exactly that.
It took me the longest time to figure out what they were actually doing was “panning in.”
I regret to inform you there is no similar mechanism. Oh, sure, you can half half a page or so of introductory taste – Terry Pratchett often does it – but you’d better make sure that you’re very, very amusing, not just showing us the warm-up in general images.
See, the difference between a book and a movie is this: a book is an art of interior narration. When you’re reading, the story doesn’t take place in front of your eyes but in the space behind your skull, where you live.
Perhaps because of that, in most cases (yes, there are some exceptions, mostly in stories that are about the situation or the “things” than about an individual person. I have trouble following them – as much in movies as in books – but some people like them) readers want to attach to a person, and to experience the story from the POV of a person (or at least a person at a time. Romance has ricocheting POVs and the fields I work in can alternate POVs in different chapters r sections, but) you home in on a person first, in the beginning and you know that person will be important to the story.
If you fail to home in properly, you already lost a portion of your audience. In the example above, of a beginning of a movie, you can pan past people swimming or construction workers, but provided you focus more on the structures, people know these aren’t the heroes.
There is no way to do that in a book.
So, in the hopes of helping any of you who might be tempted to have a graceful ballet of unnamed spaceships in the vasty deep, here goes:
1- Make it about about someone. This might turn out not to be the main character, but it should be an interesting enough character to draw us into the story. (Usually when it’s not the main character or one of them, it’s someone who dies by the end of this section. Yes, I’m thinking of thrillers and certain mysteries.)
2- Give us at least a general description of the someone and his/her surroundings. This is called “situating.” “Jane, a middle-aged spinster with bright blue eyes sat at the desk in the library.”
3- Give us a problem. Either a problem the character is aware of or, in case of impersonal narration, particularly as set up scene for a mystery, something he/she isn’t. “She was trying to read the fascinating book she’d found buried in the garden by the light of the fire. In her abstraction, she didn’t hear the footsteps behind her.”
4- Throw your worldbuilding – where? When? – in relation to us – our place and time – in as early as possible. This doesn’t have to be a huge infodump. “The buttler’s throat clearing caused Jane to jump half out of her skin, but Smith looked quite proper as he said, “It’s the housekeeper, ma’am. As she couldn’t find the fish you so particularly wanted for dinner with your cousin tonight. These war time restrictions—”
5- To really hook us use all five senses in the first page, and then try not to go more than a few pages without evoking them all. “Jane smelled the wood burning, but it seemed to give off very little heat. Maybe that was why she felt a cold shiver up her spine. She hoped Mrs. Jones would hurry tea and make some of her exquisite creamy scones.”
6- Give us some inkling of what is at stake. And make it something big enough to carry the book. “Really, finding the book buried had been so very odd. She wondered if it contained hints of what had happened to Uncle Gregory before he’d become a brain-eating zombie.”
7- Clean up your sentence structure, and make sure that your line of reasoning is perfectly clean. Look, I have been known to meander. Or sometimes just wonder. But in the beginning you can’t do that. If you’re talking about Jane and take a break to describe the frost patterns on the window, then the roses in a vase, I’m going to be yawning and wondering when Jane comes back.
8- Make us care – give us a reason to be following this particular person around. It can be a simple reason… You might know he’s going to throw his boss out of an office-building window. Because he told you in the first paragraph. Or it might be pity – the beginning of Harry Potter with the “poor orphan boy” opening – or it may be that interesting things are happening to this person… Or it may be they’re crawling through a trail of blood to find the person they love the most in the world. Doesn’t matter. You just have to give them something the rest of us think is important, whether it’s life and death or, depending on the genre and the book, an unruly toddler who keeps escaping the character’s control. (Will E. get runover? Tune in next book for…)
9- Start at the most dramatic moment. You can always backtrack. (Go read the opening of Monster Hunter International if you don’t believe me.) Starting with a startling sentence is not a bad idea, provided it pays off. This is very useful if you know that your first scene is going to seem a little slow or out of genre. You start with something that’s strong and in genre, and then you backtrack. So, say you start with “They say you never hear the bullet that hits you. But I heard it, just before my chest exploded in unbearable pain. It was a normal day around here in October. There was a cold drizzle falling, and I was sitting in the coffee shop, drinking a late and re-reading my shopping list. Did I really need onions? And then I heard it, a sort of low buzz, that exploded in a flower of pain at my chest.”
10- Be sure your mood matches what you want to do with the book. If you’re writing a funny book, don’t start with a gritty, dark, hopeless scene. A sentence or two, sure, but only if you’re setting up the punch line. In the same way, unless you’re piling on the noir irony, don’t start a serious book with a funny line. “Joe was as dead as cabbage. Which was roughly the color he’d turned. All of which would be fine if he weren’t wearing a vaudeville costume and doing a soft-shoe routine on my front doorstep.” … well, if you meant that for a serious and subtly romantic story about two pianists… boy, are you going wrong.
And that’s it. Once the book is started, things do get easier. It’s a lot easier to forgive mistakes in cuing or signaling in the middle, because the reader is already there.
It’s capturing the reader that is difficult.
Lay your trap well.