On beginnings

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about openings lately.  As a reader, I’ve found myself impatient, only willing to give a story a few paragraphs and maybe a few skimmed pages to hook me.  And by “hook” I just mean to give me some hint of what’s to come that will keep me turning the page.  To give you an example, I love books about people trapped in places: deserted islands, life rafts, snowed-in ski lodges, etc (it’s no wonder I like zombie stories!).  Recently I picked up two books about people trapped on a deserted island: one started in the airport and I knew right away that the plane crash would be imminent and you better believe I kept turning the page.  The other started… elsewhere.  Not even on the day of the plane crash.  After flipping ahead and not seeing someone step on the plane in chapter two, I put it down.

So, from that example the writer in me is like, “Great, plane crash on page one and we’re good, right?”  Not so fast.  Because why would I care about the plane crashing if I didn’t know any of the people on board?  And how am I going to see how this changes their lives if I know nothing about how they lived before they stepped on the plane?

To me this is the tension inherent in balancing the “inciting incident” of a story with the necessity of establishing and showing a slice of the ordinary world.  Michael Hague, one of my favorite authors on craft, describes the necessity of the setup this way:

“The first 10% of your screenplay is what I term the SETUP, during which you must transport the reader from the real world into the world you’ve created, as well as get them emotionally involved with the setting and characters before your main story line begins.” [source]

At the end of the setup, you hit your first turning point which Hague calls “the opportunity” but is also known as the inciting incident.  This is the “but for this moment the story doesn’t happen.”  It’s when Thelma and Louise decide to go on the road trip — if they stayed home, no movie.  It’s also usually where the rubber hits the road — when something new happens in the character’s life that starts them down a new road.  Often, it’s where the story gets exciting (i.e. the plane crashing in my example in the first paragraph).

And this is the issue: how do you keep a reader interested if the really exciting thing doesn’t happen until you’re roughly 10% of the way into the story? (and note that 10% is a rigid formula for screenwriting but is flexible in novels) One way is to front-load the book with an action laced prologue and then fill in the backstory later.  The benefit of this is instant action/tension, the difficulty is that (a) you may not get the payoff of that action if the reader isn’t invested in the characters yet and (b) if the pacing slows in the second chapter as you backpedal, you may lose readers.  Think about a James Bond movie — there’s always a high speed chase or some such right at the beginning which reels us in and yet we’re not emotionally engaged in the outcome of the chase because we’re not connected to the characters yet. 

Another option is to make the ordinary world fantastical.  A great example of this is Jen Nielsen’s The False Prince (you can click inside to read the first pages).  The main character is a thief and so his ordinary world is one instantly imbued with action and intrigue.  Plus she does a great job getting the voice across — reading that first page you know what you’re getting into and you know the main character is going to be getting in enough trouble to keep the story interesting.

A third option is foreshadowing.  I was recently discussing this with Maggie Steifvater whose latest book, The Raven Boys, starts with the line: “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love,” followed a few paragraphs later by: “If Blue were to kiss her true love, he would die.”  To me, this creates immediate tension: you know this is a book about true love, about predictions, and about death.  You know there’s going to eventually be an impossible situation where Blue falls in love and has to decide whether she’ll risk a kiss.  In two lines, you know one of the internal and external arcs of this story.  Immediately the author has set forth a question you know the book/series will be answering.  And because she’s hooked you, she can then take the time to show the ordinary world (which isn’t all that ordinary since the main character is the daughter of psychics).

There’s a lot the opening of a book needs to do: introduce the world, introduce the characters, establish a “before” snapshot, create an emotional bond with the hero, etc. And often the difficulty is that the ordinary world of most people is… well… ordinary.  Boring.  The trick is to find a way to show this ordinary world in an interesting way which of course is much easier said than done.  Often it’s tempting to just skip the setting and dive right into the inciting incident but this can leave your reader feeling disengaged.  Because here’s the thing — at its heart every book is about a character who desires a goal and faces obstacles in achieving that goal (via Hague).  If we don’t care about the character, we won’t care if she achieves her goal.  And if we don’t care about the goal, even the most exciting obstacles will seem dull.  So the first thing the reader has to do is care about the character, otherwise the rest of the story is meaningless.

To get a sense of what works, I suggest reading as many openings as you can.  The Amazon “look inside” feature is great for this: start going down the list of bestsellers and see what openings grab you (don’t skip the indie and self-pubbed). Read in your genre and in others, debut books and established pros.  Think about what makes you keep reading and what makes you put it down — this will help inform your decisions about how to open your own book.

And if you have other tips for how to start a book in a way that keeps the reader turning the page (or examples of books that do a great job of this), share them in the comments!

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12 comments to On beginnings

  • Great post, Carrie, and one that has me thinking about the book I’m revising right now. The setup begins right away, but it also needed more tension and more information regarding the larger high-stakes conflict that lies of the heart of the narrative. You have me thinking about different ways to accomplish that. Thanks!

  • Glad it helped David! One interesting point Michael Hague makes is that the goal you give your characters at the start of the book can’t be the overall goal of the book itself — it just won’t be sustainable. I always found that interesting. He advises having an initial goal that then morphs into the overall story goal — like something initially that then leads into the high-stakes conflict at the heart of the book.

    I think about something like Harry Potter where the overall arc of the books/series is ultimately good vs. evil but if you just start reading when Harry is a boy, you’d never realize that until later in the book. So JKR has the opening that gives hints of the good vs. evil conflict so that we know immediately how high the stakes will ultimately be. As Harry goes through everything, we know there’s a dark cloud looming and building that will eventually crash.

  • I’ve also been told that as far as screenplays go, something needs to happen in the first five pages of the script if you’re writing screenplays, action or intrigue or a situation, anything to help draw the viewer along and keep them watching. It’s close to the same as saying the first five minutes of film, approximately. And technically, the same can be said for the first five minutes of reading. I will give a book five minutes of reading time if the writing is good. I only stuck with the first book in the Wheel of Time series, as example (though there are a few bits in there to suggest things are about to take a turn) because my cousin couldn’t say enough great things about it and kept asking if I got to “the part” yet. It’s heavy on description and lead up and I kept putting it down. It took me a week to read the first five chapters and another week to read the rest of the book. It all started with a knock at the door… ;)

    So yeah, you definitely need a balance between at least getting to know your main character and keeping interest high to keep those eyes darting along. It’s frequently why I tend to start in medias res. I feel like I can always get the reader to know more about the character they’re following through thoughts and actions while keeping that hook firmly in the jaw, so to speak, through what’s going on around them. But there is something to be said for a subtler approach too. I loved the intro for Theft of Swords, and it kept me reading because I wanted to know more of these snarky characters who seemed unconcerned that they were being held up by brigands on a road in the woods.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you, Carrie! This actually gives me some great ideas for how to critique the intro to a friend’s manuscript she’s been having me look at. It’s been not working so far, but my ideas so far for directions to go to fix it have been unfortunately limited.

  • Two thoughts crossed my mind reading this. 1. This describes exactly what was wrong with the last three murder mysteries I’ve picked up and dropped. It also describes what was right about the two that I tore through like a kid through Halloween candy. 2. This is a big part of why the “literary” authors feel that the genre writers aren’t good enough – from the outside writing a murder or an urban fantasy or sci fi looks like taking the easy route to hooking the reader. It’s almost like cheating. Robots, zombies, cursed princes! Of course those are exciting, so it doesn’t take any skill to make the reader care and continue to care about the character or the world or the action. Genre writers are therefore lazy hacks. Except, as Carrie’s post shows us, it DOES take writerly skill to make anything interesting. Just as a beaten down, mediocre traveling salesman has the potential to be deeply interesting (Willy Loman, anyone?) a murdered socialite or a cursed prince has the potential to be deeply boring. A cute premise is almost worthless if the execution isn’t there.

  • quillet

    Some great openings that hooked me (that I hope I haven’t already mentioned on this site): N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which begins with Yeine’s defiant attempt to remember who she is after what they did to her; Rachel Aaron’s The Spirit Thief, which begins with Eli sweet-talking a prison door :) of all things; and Martha Wells’s The Cloud Roads, which starts with the hint that Moon will soon be thrown out of another groundling settlement. All three start with engaging characters and lots of story questions. Why does Yeine need to remember who she is, and who are “they” and what have they done to her? How the heck can Eli talk to a door, and why’s he in prison? Why does Moon keep getting thrown out of settlements, and why does he call people “groundlings”?

    I think I’m just echoing you here, but those are two of the main elements (the third is voice) that keep me reading: great characters, and tension-filled story-questions that I really want answered. And so I try (“try” is the operative word!) to have those in my own work.

  • Razziecat

    Carrie, this is a great post, and I especially like your comment that the goal you give your characters at the start of the story can’t be the overal story goal. I’ve noticed this with pretty much all of my favorite books, for ex., in Carol Berg’s “Flesh and Spirit”, Valen’s goal at the start is simply to survive a nasty wound and find a safe place to spend the winter; he certainly has no idea that his whole world’s future is riding on his choices. And in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Hallowed Hunt,” Ingrey’s task is to escort a murdered prince’s body home, along with the woman who killed him. He doesn’t understand the true goal for some time, but it involves love, revenge, outlawed magic, animal-spirit possession, an ancient war and the true meaning of kingship. It’s fascinating how what seems like a simple beginning can build and grow, developing layers and putting out shoots, until it all comes together in the end.

  • Interesting ideas, but I have to disagree on foreshadowing. I can’t think of many things more boring than the two lines about Blue Sargent you quoted, as they give you immediate hints of the main problem of the book, and it can’t go anywhere else from there. It’s like the kind of lingering camera in films where you just know that something’s been focused on because it will become a plot point later. It removes all the uncertainty and possibility from a narrative, particularly if it happens early on.

    Going on the above example, I’d be much more interested on being there when she was first told about the prediction, and her reaction to such a world-shattering change. Foreshadowing like you’ve highlighted in this article already assumes that change, doesn’t give you the time to engage with the characters which you claim is necessary.

    But then, I hate pretty much any kind of narrative signposting, and delight in the fact that about a third to half of the Exorcist (both book and film) hardly goes near the paranormal at all, but builds up this picture of affluent American domesticity which it then proceeds to tear down. You get hints at what’s happening, but no signposts. Maybe the happy medium (at least for me) is showing things without framing them in the narrative, so that the reader can think back on their own and go “oh, so that’s what that was about!” without being led their by the hand.

  • Daniel — great point about starting in media res! I’ve heard the advice that you should find the most crucial moment in your character’s life (essentially the inciting incident) and start your book a heartbeat before that (i.e. as close to that as possible). I think one of the most common mistake new writers make is starting the book too early and not getting to that point in the story soon enough.

    When I wrote The Forest of Hands and Teeth I purposefully told myself that unless a piece of information was critical for the reader to understand what was going on, it wasn’t mentioned. I did end up having to go back in and add a bit more explaining in revisions, but this rule really helped me streamline and avoid info dumping.

    Another piece of advice I love is to only write the exciting parts and skip the boring parts.

    Hepseba — glad it helped! I think critting other manuscripts is a great way to see what works and what doesn’t for an opening. I once judged a writing contest and I learned a TON about openings just be seeing how many started way too early and were way too generic.

  • Sarah — excellent point! What’s interesting is that (after the stage setting) the opening to Death of a Salesman is a wife calling out to her husband and frantically asking what happened. I think this is a great example of a hooky opening — you have a character clearly emotionally agitated and asking the question the reader is also asking: what happened? It’s very hard not to read on and find out the answer.

    Quillet — good point about the voice. I think that’s one reason I love the opening to The False Prince because you get the voice right away. I think sometimes writers don’t quite know the voice of the characters in their books yet when they begin writing and so the tone can come across generic. This is one reason I think it’s important to go back and revise/rewrite the opening after you’ve finished the book– to make sure the tone is consistent, to make sure you’re hitting the important ponts that will carry through the story, and to make sure your opening in some way echoes the ending.

  • Razziecat — you’ve also pointed out how in both of those books everything keeps piling on and piling on which is also important. The tension and stakes have to keep growing so that what starts out as “taking a body home” becomes much more important and much more difficult. That also keeps us reading: once we care about a character and we care about their goal, we’ll pretty much read to find out if they achieve the goal. And actually, often we don’t just read to find out IF they achieve their goal, but how. Think about a romance novel where we already know the ending… and yet we read to see it happen and find out how it happens.

  • Crucible — good thoughts, but I’d argue that part of the point the author is making with the line about Blue (and the page that follows) is that this *isn’t* a world-shattering change for her. This is something she’s been told so many times she’s pretty much “meh” about it. And I like how that’s unexpected, right? Your first thought is that this should be a Really Big Deal but it’s not… why isn’t it? And if the entire series were about whether Blue could find someone to kiss, I might agree that it could get boring. But that’s not the driving narrative — this is a series about a dead Welsh king who can grant a wish when woken and the desperate reasons and attempts people make to find him (I did a terrible job summarizing the plot — there’s more to it than that). To me, I think what works with this first line is that it hooks us in — it asks a question that we want to answer. But this isn’t the only question in the book and I don’t think any book would be able to sustain itself on just one question asked in the first line.

    You bring up a great point about how to you this is akin to when the camera in a movie pauses on an actor or an object and you just know that will be coming back. You’re totally right. This is unavoidable in books and movies and I think it’s important for authors to be aware of that. I was writing a story recently where a girl watches a boy escape being killed when they’re both young kids. Flash forward a decade and a stranger shows up to town. If you’re the character, no way would you connect the two — strangers show up to town all the time, why would you ever think it was that boy? But as the reader, you don’t get the benefit of living that girl’s life and watching scores of strangers show up to town (and an author attempting that would likely bore the reader). So as the reader, you know the girl saw a boy escape, and then a stranger arrives and you know they’re both important to the story (why else would they be mentioned?) and so you immediately assume the stranger is that boy.

    This is always tricky to deal with as an author because you have to balance what the reality would be (the girl not connecting the two) with the reader’s reality (how obvious the connection is). It’s the same in horror movies — we’re always shouting that the girl shouldn’t go down in the basement because it’s stupid and she’ll be killed. But how many times has she gone into the basement before without incident? In her reality, of course she’ll go to the basement. To us, she’s TSTL.

    I haven’t read the Exorcist or seen the movie (I don’t know how I’ve avoided it) and it seems like now is the perfect time of year to do both – thanks!