As you work along writing your novel it is critical that you are also taking some time each day to learn more about the techniques of writing. In an earlier post I stressed the importance of your reference library and suggested the four books that should be on every writer’s bookshelves: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, On Writing by Stephen King and The Elements of Style by Strunk & White.
As you study these books and others that you add to your library, as well as your Internet research, you will come across references to “Beginnings, Middles and Endings.” Novels, like plays, can be dissected into three parts, or three acts. Act One, or the beginning, will surely be the greatest challenge of the three acts although each “Act” will have its own demands.
You may have full knowledge or only a basic rough idea of the plot, the story you want to tell. You’ve decided on writing in first or third person. You know the genre and tone, such as sci-fi, romance, thriller, epic or other and if your story will be humorous, loopy, serious, fast-paced or slower nerve-wracking suspense. You must bring this much to the table before you are ready to address beginnings, middles and endings.
Beginning your novel
In the beginning your goal is to:
- Hook the Reader
- Establish, or hint at, a dramatic situation
- Tell us the setting and time
- Introduce at least one character
- Introduce the opposition
Hooking the reader is a term you will hear often. Its importance cannot be overstressed. You must make the reader want to read more and you must do it quickly. A reader is not all that different from an agent considering your manuscript. If that first paragraph or two, or to some readers or agents that very first sentence, does not generate interest and make one want to read more, it won’t matter what else you do with the book because it is not going to get read.
Not sure how to hook? Do a little research at the library.
Go to your local library and spend some time reading the openings of one book after another. Look at the best sellers as well as obscure novels you never heard of. What is it in the openings that make you want to continue reading? I believe that in every successful novel you’ll see or feel intrigue; a question has been raised in your mind and you are impelled to read on. You are pulled deeper into the story. You have just been hooked.
Many years ago I read a detective novel, long since forgotten, possibly by Raymond Chandler. I can’t quote the opening exactly, but it went something like this: “My partner and I were just finishing our shift and getting ready to head back to the precinct when someone threw the girl off the bridge.”
Holy buckets! Is this a book you’d put back on the shelf? I don’t think so.
Or what about this one: “Hapscomb’s Texaco sat on Number 93 just north of Arnette, a piss-ant four street berg about 110 miles from Houston. Tonight the regulars were there, sitting by the cash register, drinking beer, talking idly, watching the bugs fly into the big lighted sign. It was Bill Hapscomb’s station, so the others deferred to him even though he was a pure fool.”
Want more? Sure you do and so did ten million others who read Stephen King’s The Stand.
The best way to learn? Practice.
While all openings won’t be as dramatic as these, all good first scenes have this effect on readers. We can’t resist. We want to know more. Work on your opening lines until you are convinced that they will grab readers with a clenched fist.
Introduce us quickly to a character that we can identify with, whether or not the protagonist. If the author opens the novel with information she thinks we need to know before getting on with the story everything is immediately slowed down. Exposition always slows a story and too much of it turns a story boring. As an opening it basically kills a novel before it even gets breathing well. Unless maybe you’re James Michener. Think “action” as you create those first lines. You can explain later. And of course you’ll want to work it into the story not feed it to the reader in long dull ramblings.
Another beginning to avoid is to open with a dream. Readers don’t like it and agents hate it. Its another death knoll to your novel so don’t be tempted.
Next up? Build the plot.
Once you have your opening hook you can then start building your plot. Conflict, or opposition to your protagonist’s wants or goals, should be introduced early, at least in the first third of the book. The sooner the better even if it is only alluded to, not shown in detail. The details can be worked continually through the story events. The lead character is thwarted. As she comes close to resolving the problem, she is slammed into another obstacle. Continue to build the tension by having her run into one issue after another if you can. At the very least stretch out the resolution to her problem until we as readers are ready to tear out our hair.
Act One, or the first part of your novel, “The Beginning” should have the reader worrying about all of the known or anticipated obstacles that you plan to develop in Act Two, “The Middle” of your book. It is critical to hook the reader but equally important to keep her on the line.
Next article we’ll look at “Middles and Endings.”