Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, March 19, 2009

And So It Begins . . .

by Julie Coulter Bellon

As I’ve been judging entries in the First Chapter Contest for the LDStorymakers conference coming up, I've realized two things. First, we have some talented writers who have submitted great chapters for the contest, and second, there are still some problems out there with writing an opening that draws a reader into a story immediately. If I could say one thing to aspiring authors (well, there's a lot of things I could say, but this is one of them) don’t waste the small amount of time you have with a potential reader telling them all about how much your character loved Aunt Mae’s brownies and they were so tasty just warm from the oven and she used to bring them to you when you were sad and you always wondered how she knew just the right time to bring them over. It’s too much information and quite frankly, boring. (And no, that’s not from a chapter I judged, I just made it up.) You want something that will stand out, that will make your reader turn just one more page, and wonder about your story and characters.

To illustrate, let's take the brownie opening from above. Instead of starting with all of that, and having your readers close your book before they’ve even gotten to the end of the first page, you could draw your readers in with, “I was crouched behind the locked bathroom door, trying to hide my sobs, when I heard Aunt Mae call out that she’d brought brownies.” It's a better opening because it gives your readers something to wonder about. Why is she crying? Who is Aunt Mae? Make that reader want to read more. As a writer, you just can’t afford to have a flat opening with a ton of information that isn’t essential.

But how exactly do you make your beginning paragraphs stand out and draw a reader in? There are three basic elements that are essential to a good opening—action, questions, and imagination. A good opening will have all three.

Where possible, I would suggest starting your novel out with some sort of action. If your character is fighting with her mother on the phone, don’t start after it’s all over and she’s thinking about how the conversation went. Start with the yelling on the phone and show us that argument. Or, if your character is walking home from work, don’t start with the trees were budding and the birds were singing. Tell your readers that, “For each step she took, she counted four drops of blood before the next foot fell.” Give us an action that makes us want to know more about that character.

But you can’t just have random actions. You need to have an action with an oh boy factor in it that makes your reader ask questions. Make your readers wonder and want more. For example, in Jeff Savage’s book, Dead on Arrival, he begins with the statement: “Someone is trying to kill me.” Then we go on to find out more about a strange man who is claiming someone is trying to kill him, even though he’s already dead. It’s an oh boy factor in that the reader is wondering how can that be? And who is trying to kill him? If he’s already dead, does that mean he’s a ghost? It opens up all kinds of possibilities that the reader will wonder about and read on so they can find out more.

But a good opening also has a good imagination behind it. Stephenie Meyer starts out her novel, The Host, with “The Healer’s name was Fords Deep Waters,” and then she goes on to describe the “insertion” of an alien into a “wild” human. It’s original and imaginative, it’s got action, and the readers have a whole lot of questions that make them want to read on.

Too many novice writers think that they have to describe the setting to get the story going, or they have to tell the reader all about their main character and explain their actions. The goal of a writer is to draw the reader in from the very first words. Use the precious few seconds you have when a potential reader picks up your book and reads/skims the first two or three paragraphs to make them want more. Give them action with an oh boy factor that makes them wonder what is going to happen next, and be original and imaginative. A stellar opening sets the tone for the rest of your book and will make your story stand out from the start.


At 3/19/2009 1:06 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

Great post! I cannot tell you how many times I've told an author to cut the first three or four pages of their novel and start with the action.

At 3/19/2009 1:14 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Excellent information, Julie!

At 3/19/2009 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderful mini-boot camp in a post. Now I need the three hour kick in the pants at the LDStorymakers conference for my opening line/first paragraph and chapter. Can't wait.


At 3/21/2009 6:22 PM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

I remember hearing a story about a receptionist for a publisher who was given the task of looking over the first few chapters/manuscript in the slush pile. She would pull it out of the manila envelope just so that she could read the very first sentence. If the first sentence didn't make her want to keep reading, she would slide it back in and add a rejection letter.

One of the things that have helped me in trying to write first lines is 1) write something that makes people want to keep reading and 2) start the story where the change in the character's life starts. Too often authors don't get to that change until Chapter 2, so take the advice of chopping off your first chapter and start where the action starts.


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