Friday, 16 September 2011

5 Bad Ways of Starting a Novel - and 5 Good

1.  The Internal Monologue
This often involves a character staring at themselves in the mirror and wondering how, exactly, they ended up there.  They think about their situation, what has happened, how they feel about it all.  And all the while the reader is thinking: where are they?  what's happening?  why is this interesting?  We know characters by their thought processes, but we need to establish some basics first such as what's going on (ie action), where are they (physically and temporally), what the story problems are before we go into the workings of their mind too deeply.

2. Gimmicky Action
The opposite of the internal monologue, this begins with nothing but action and of the most dramatic sort - car crashes and chases, exploding this and that.  The trouble is, until we know the characters we don't care what's happening to them.  'Normal world' has to be established before we can leap into action.  Closely related to Gimmicky Action is...

3. The Info Dump: Factual
This is when the writer thinks we need to know lots of facts about the characters and their situation before we can understand them.  Not true: we can know very few facts about characters and their situation, so long as we understand the emotional meaning or resonance that they have.  But that's not to say a better idea is...

4. The Info Dump: Emotional
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe having cup of tea when I fell into conversation with another woman.  She then told me her life story including a lot of traumatic detail about her miscarriage and how she'd decided not to have another child.  The writer part of me was fascinated, and as a woman I was sympathetic, but it wasn't a comfortable situation.  Piling on loads of heavy emotional stuff right at the beginning will have the same effect on the reader.  You may think it's a way of getting sympathy for a character, but most readers will find it cringe-making.  Again, establish 'normal world' first.  

5. Flashback
You may have noticed I'm not a fan of flashback generally but I particularly don't like it on the first page of a novel. It makes 'normal world' hard to place - is normal the present situation, or the one in the past?  You want the reader to be swept up into the story of what it happening now, and flashback, by definition, is not now.  Plus, it can be confusing, and the last thing you want to do is confuse the reader right from the start. 

So what do I think are good ways of starting a novel?

1.  Establish normal world 
2. Within normal world hint that all is not as it seems.
3. Show characters in action
4. Give an indication of the main theme(s) of the novel
5. Clearly show the genre (romance, thriller, literary, sci-fi etc)

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am.  Go to the website for more info.


Anonymous said...

Some great tips swirling around me! I have to say this translation is beautiful. Thanks for the posting.

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Jim Murdoch said...

It’s clearly a personal taste thing. The way you describe #1 actually attracts me to that style of opening. And what if your entire novel is an internal monologue? My last novel begins with the narrator talking to an unnamed ‘you’ and it’s not until we get to the last few pages that we realise who the ‘you’ is. As it turns out the entire book is a letter and we only learn who she thinks she’s writing to. So it’s not exactly an internal monologue but it has that feel.

As far as #5 goes this is, of course, a staple of crime fiction and, again, I personally like it. I like being presented with something that is completely out of field and seeing how the writer weaves it into the story, e.g. Murder on the Orient Express begins with the abduction of a three-year-old girl five years earlier. I’ve never used it but as long as the flashback only lasts a few pages and does what it’s meant to do, i.e. tantalises, it works.

#3 I would say is the hardest to resist and all you have to do is think of the pilot episodes of your favourite TV series to see ways of getting round that (or not). My basic line of logic goes: Tell them as little as they need to know just before they need to know it. You have to establish some facts but I personally enjoy working things out and hate being spoon-fed by an author.

Debs Carr said...

You explain everything so well. Thank you.

Tam said...

Phew- new book doesn't do any of these things! Thanks, Sarah.

Judy Astley said...

I think I've done all these at one time or another!

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Thank you for this, and your recent posts, which I find very helpful right now. I am working to get the concept of my second novel to emerge. Actually I have two ideas on the go and this time I want to write the two in tandem (despite what I have said in the past about being a 'serial novelist' ). Any advice you post about approach, strategy and structure is valuable right now.

I'd like to know too, Sarah, if you overcame the block with your current work, which you mentioned a couple of weeks ago (was it)? I've been worrying on your behalf and I would like to think you have solved the problem.

Sarah Duncan said...

Jim and Judy - there are always exceptions to every rule!

Fiona - Oh dear, hope I wasn't doing a poor little me! I"m plodding away at it, thanks, though it does feel a bit of an endless task I have hope that one day it will be finished.