Yesterday I wrote about some things that slow me down when it comes time end a story and what I do to avoid that slow down and finish the book. Today I want to talk about a more prevailing problem, starting your book at the right point. The last few years, I’ve read a lot of opening chapters, and tried to give an honest opinion of what I thought. This can be a big problem with first time writers, and more experienced writers sometimes as well. It all comes down to where in the story your book is starting. Is it starting in the right place? How can you tell?
Say, for example, your story hinges on what kind of person your character is. Sure, it’s a murder mystery, but the readers really aren’t going to get it unless you tell them all about those events that happened it their childhood in vivid and many chaptered detail.
Ok, let’s say you are writing an epic science fiction about rabid space monkeys. The story just isn’t going to make sense unless you describe the planet and society in vivid detail, right away, in several chapters, or even one chapter.
There are a million books and articles on the web about this very issue, and yet I see it time and time again. Unless you are James A. Michener–and let’s face it, you’re not–you don’t want to start with long-winded world building. And why do you want to be Michener anyway? I made it through exactly one of his books, and it left me with no desire to read another. That involved character study you want to start with? By all means write it down. It will help you as your character winds his way through your book. Write it down, then put it in a separate file, and start your book somewhere else.
Why? Think about the last book you read, assuming it wasn’t Michener. Where did it start? Did it start with a childhood memory, dream sequence, or flashback? Did it start with even one chapter of world-building? Chances are it did not. And it did not for a very important reason. The first chapter, even the first paragraph of your book, must do the job of drawing your reader in. Memories, dreams, flashbacks, and world building are not an effective way to do this.
Are there exceptions? Of course there are. But why would a writer give themselves a handicap when they are trying to get an agent, publisher, or reader’s attention? Because here’s the thing: if you do not catch your reader’s attention with that first paragraph, or that first chapter, they are not going to read any farther. I read the first chapter of an aspiring writer’s work recently. They had lost my interest by the second paragraph. I had to force myself to finish a chapter, and I could not force myself to read any more. Is that the effect you want to have on any reader, let alone a prospective agent? Your book will not get far if you don’t draw the reader in immediately.
So, how do you know where to start your book? Now, that is a tricky question, isn’t it? It’s hard to find that perfect spot to start, but I’ll give you a good clue. Something should be happening. Think about your story, and the first point where something important to the plot happens. You might want to begin there. In the rabid space monkey book, maybe space monkey, Barbara, is going to crash land on Earth. Maybe that’s where you start, and maybe you add a little world building, bit by bit, through the story. That’s the plot to the movie ET, by the way. Ok, so he’s not a monkey, my point still holds. The movie doesn’t start with a long winded description of ET’s home world. We don’t really care about his home world. We want to know what happens.
Now let’s look at the story of Forrest Gump. Lots of details in that story. Lots of time passes. This story is, more than anything else, a character study. It’s all about Forrest. Does it start with a long winded description of his character? No, it’s starts with bully’s and running, and the things that happen in the plot. Little by little, as Forrest goes through his life, we learn who he is, and why he’s unique.
What it really comes down to is show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me about your main character, show me, a little at a time, while the story is happening. And don’t tell me about the space monkey’s complicated world and society. Show me how she deals with that society, bit by bit, as she lives her life.
Start your book with something happening, not a lecture. Instead of bits of action amongst the lecture, it should be bits of lecture amongst the action. And I don’t mean that every story is a big action adventure either. Let’s go back to Forrest Gump. That story is all about him. It’s all about what Forrest does, and how he lives his life, and what he thinks. And when we experience all those things that happen, we come to know who he is. We aren’t told about him, we are shown his life.
Start your book with something that happens, whether that’s a big thing or a little thing. Just make sure it’s an interesting thing, and that it makes me want to read more.
If you don’t, well Mr. Michener, I’m not reading your book and you can’t make me.
My mother-in-law loved Michener. She read everything he wrote, some books multiple times. Me? I’ve read part of The Novel. I think the thing to really keep in mind is that tastes change in fiction just as they do in other art forms. What was acceptable fifty or a hundred years ago will not fly now.
Excellent point. Your M-I-L is the first person that I’ve known to read more than 2 of Michener’s books. And the thing is, there were things about Chesapeake Bay that I really enjoyed, but once I finished that one, I could never face another.