Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Getting Off on the Right Foot

By Jeffrey S Savage

In a follow-up to last week’s blog, I am posting notes from my second novel writing class. This week we talked about beginnings. This is an area a lot of writers struggle with, including me. In fact, many writers end of rewriting their beginnings after the novel is done.

This happens for a couple of reasons. Often the author doesn’t really know their characters yet and they have not gotten into the flow of the story like they do later on. In addition, the things a writer wants to tell first (back story and setting) are some of the least gripping for the reader.

And yet the beginning is what sells your book. A reader/agent/editor may only browse a few paragraphs before deciding whether or not they want to read on. True more established authors can get away with slow beginnings. Slow beginnings were also much more common even twenty years a go. But now in the age of computers, video games, DVDs, etc, you don’t have twenty or thirty pages to real the reader slowly in. Immediacy is the name of the game.

With that in mind, here are five ways to kill the beginning of your novel.

5 things to avoid


Jane remembered the first time she’d sat on this very rock. It was the day after Michael left. She remembered the wind had been blowing cold, and her face had been raw and chapped by the tears she’d shed over the last few days.

"You have to go on with your life,” Mary said, rubbing the handle of her unusual umbrella. But Jane hadn’t wanted to go on with her life. She hadn’t wanted to go on with anything. All she wanted to do was curl up in a ball, drink some lime cordial, and . . .

Avoid flashbacks like the plague in the first few chapters. Even later in the book, carefully consider whether you can weave the back story into the plot. If you really need to begin with a flashback you are probably starting your book in the wrong place.

Likewise, avoid the big foreshadowing moment. “Little did he realize that the person on the other side of the door would change his life forever.” Or “She had no idea she was about to get hit by a bus.” Usually a writer uses these types of lines because they know their story is not exciting enough yet and they are beg the reader to stay with them.


"Now I have you the!” the ogre shouted, placing his spear tip against Mickey’s throat.

Mickey, tried to pull away, but the flint cut cruelly into his furry flesh, drawing blood. Mickey knew he had only one chance. He needed his wand. It was less than a foot away, but before he could think of a scheme to reach it, the ogre sneered.

"Too late, sorcerer. Now you will taste death.” The ogre rammed the spear into Mickey’s throat. Mickey coughed out a red spray—which coincidentally matched his outfit—as his life bled onto the ground. It was finished. He was dead.

Mickey jerked awake with a moan. “Oh, boy!” he cried in his squeaky voice. “What a dream.”

The reader is pulled into the story by a sense of false excitement, and then has the rug pulled out from under them. They will rightfully feel cheated and you’ll lose their trust.

Killing off a character too early

"Can I get you a cup of coffee?”

”Certainly,” replied Jane.

“With a little cream if you have it.”

”Of course.” As Tarzan started toward the kitchen, the jealous hunter stepped into the living room and began to spray bullets. Tarzan crumpled to the ground, dead.

An early death is okay if the character’s death is more important than the character. (I.e. the start of a murder mystery.) But any death is much more powerful if you take even a couple of paragraphs to make us like the character or even better like the relationship between the character who gets killed, and the character who lives on. Take the time to up the ante for the reader.

Unearned emotions

”Why?” Jasmine wailed, pounding her fists against the useless lamp. Hot tears dripped down her cheeks as she gnashed her teeth. It was so unfair!

“Why did he have to die?” She’d loved him so much—more than life itself. He was everything to her. Her little street rat. And now he was gone. Stabbed by a maniacal street vendor. She pressed her face against her silk pillow and wept until she finally fell asleep and dreamed about an ogre and a white-gloved rodent.

We don’t know the person Jasmine is weeping over and frankly don’t care at this point. And Jasmine comes off as whiny and unlikable. As the author, you understand Jasmine’s pain because you know all about her wonderful life with Aladdin, But remember, the reader doesn’t.

Flowery descriptions

It was a warm day for early spring, and the smell of jasmine floated on the slightly damp air—the flower, not the spoiled princess. Everywhere Aurora looked, signs of life abounded. Red throated warblers warbled, sprouts sprouted, fuzzy little bunnies . . . did whatever it was bunnies do. The sun peeked down from between the branches of the aspens and maples. It was a wonderful day to be alive. If only she could find a prince to help her celebrate her sixteenth birthday.

This is the most common mistake writers make. Because you see the scene in your mind, you feel you must share that first—to set the table so to speak. But the reader wants something to happen. And a flowery description of Aunt Mabel’s farm isn’t it. Cut to the action and fill us in on the scenery later.

So how do you grab the reader’s attention?

Here are a couple of thoughts.

Enter the scene late and leave it early.

Come in during the middle of a discussion, just as the protagonist steps in front of the bus, as shots are fired. Let the reader be dropped right into the middle of the action. A little bit of confusion as to what’s going on can carry a reader a long way. And leave the reader wanting more in your first chapter. Make them HAVE to turn the page.

Keep it short and sweet.

Beginning writers almost always are too wordy. This can kill your beginning. Trim it until there is nothing but action. And seriously consider whether you are starting at the right point. Often the true beginning of your story gets placed in chapter three. Start there and fill us in later.

Action, action, action

Want to hook your reader right away? Start with a woman in jeopardy. Readers will immediately empathize with a women being chased down a dark alley by a menacing figure in a black cloak.

But even if you can’t do that, make sure something is happening when we start reading.

The explosive beginning

Another good tool is a beginning that immediately grabs our attention. Make something happen that surprises or shocks the reader. Or even makes them laugh out loud.

Unexpected dialog

”Excuse me ma’am, but could you please remove your child from the meat grinder?”

”Didn’t I see you on a wanted poster?”

”Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m short, homely, broke, and I have a strange odor about me. But I’m really desperate to take someone to the prom. What do you say?”

What did you just say?

The thing about human heads is they always turn up in the most inconvenient places.

Creating a bond to one or more characters

Make me like your character right away. This can be the toughest to do, but it works really well if you can pull it off.

So that’s it. Remember the goal of the first line is to get the reader to go on to the second line. The goal of the first paragraph is the same.

I don’t claim to be a pro at this yet, but hopefully I’ve improved at this over the years. In my first book I began with a flowery description and an entire chapter of flashback. In my most recent book, I began with a dead man telling my protagonist his dead wife is trying to kill him. This takes place while the protagonist is choking on a lettuce, tomato, and chow mein sandwich.


At 2/06/2007 9:08 AM, Blogger Josi said...

You don't claim to be a pro? Jeff, you are so good at this and you're an excellent teacher. I'm 50 pages into my latest book and don't have a beginning yet for the very reasons you've stated. Thanks for the early morning inspiration!

At 2/06/2007 12:05 PM, Blogger Mean Aunt said...

Fabulous examples.

I would definitely keep reading after the human heads line.

At 2/06/2007 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Excuse me, ma'am, but could you please remove your child from the meat grinder?" There but for the grace of God go I! Now if only I could find a way to start my current book with that phrase, I'm sure I'd have my editor and readers hooked. :-)

Excellent tips, Jeff, keep them coming! I'm taking notes and trying to learn.

Melanie Goldmund

At 2/06/2007 3:12 PM, Blogger FHL said...

Flashback: Just one comment against - I recently read the Abhorsen trilogy (main character: necromancer!) and there was zero flashback until way into the book. The author just dropped you into the way bizarre setting and set off. I was so confused and had so many questions that I really wished there was some backstory just so I would know what was going on. (Aha! I see this is explained later under "Enter the scene late.") I suppose there are two edges to this sword - the part that keeps you running to the next page, and the one that makes you want to cut your own throat. =)

Dream: Likewise, ending your story with this is bad. "Nobody shot J.R. - it was all a dream."

FHL, still disappointed to not be in your class, but maybe you'll have another one someday

At 2/08/2007 2:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, you scoundrel! You killed off Tarzan! I'm so disillusioned!

Bunnies frolic or gambol.


(It's too hard to sign in with my Google account so you'll just have to think I'm anonymous until the grand moment when I reveal my true identity)

At 2/12/2007 12:38 PM, Anonymous Julie Wright said...

Thank you Jeff This is all GREAT information. You rock my friend!


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