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If you look around for advice on starting a novel, you’ll find a lot of people out there who claim the first few lines of the story are the most important part.  And to an extent, this is true.  After all, some readers are less patient than others, and many of them will walk away from a story very quickly if they don’t see a reason for continuing to read it.

In many of these ‘how to begin a story’ articles, you find examples of the very first sentences from either “classic” or “popular” works, with explanations for why these are superior to all other opening sentences.  This happens, not because there must always be something inherently magical about the first sentence of a story, but because a sentence is the shortest unit you can separate from the rest of the text to make a point.  One sentence is small enough for them to give twenty… thirty… forty examples of the many different ways a person can start a story off ‘right.’

The trouble is though, while writing a “good” first sentence is important, getting all hung up on writing the “perfect” first sentence will likely do more harm than good, especially if you think that, after creating the “best opening sentence,” you can slack off on the rest of the opening paragraph, or the rest of the first chapter.

In my opinion, there are only two pieces of advice on beginning a story that are actually good.  All other pieces of advice, however good they may sound, really should be taken in context of these two rules:

1. Give the reader at least one good reason to keep on reading.

2. Do not give the reader any reason to stop reading.

Most advice on how to begin a novel is actually suggestions on how to follow rule one.  Some of the ways people like to mention are:

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1. Show that something about the initial situation is out of the ordinary. In The Firm, we know from the very first page that there’s something fishy about the law firm recruiting the main character, so we keep reading in order to find out what it is.  In 1984, the first sentence begins with the mundane, but ends with something about the clocks striking thirteen.  This also peaks the readers’ interest, because it says, “This world is different from the one you’re used to.  Continue reading to find out how.”

2. Open with somebody in an undesirable situation.  People like to hear about other’s misfortune, as the content of the daily news attests. We like the satisfaction of feeling like we’re empathizing with someone else, even when that person is fictional.  And if the situation is sad enough, we tend to become angry on the character’s behalf. After all, we think, that poor character did nothing to deserve being orphaned and raised by evil foster parents.  How unfair!  We must continue reading to see justice done.

Cover of "The Lightning Thief (Percy Jack...

Cover via Amazon

3. Suggest that the information you are giving the readers is in some way forbidden or dangerous.  I don’t remember the first sentence of The Lightning Thief, but the first paragraphs say something to the effect that, if you have any reason to think this story is true and you might be a “half-blood”, you must stop reading, this instant, or the author is not responsible for the consequences.  This beginning was so strong that, even though I did initially put the book down after the first page, I purposefully sought it out later, mostly on the basis of that beginning I had read.  Why, I wanted to know, was being a “half-blood” so bad that someone would want to protect other half-bloods from even knowing who they were?  If the information is forbidden, then something about it must be terribly important.

4. Make the writing itself so beautiful that it doesn’t really matter what is said; reading the words alone is a pleasure.  This doesn’t hook me personally, but some people like it, so if you’re good at that kind of thing, I wish you the best of luck.

Great as these methods are though, if you use one of them in the first sentence, and then forget about rule number two, they actually do you more harm than good.  Now that I’ve mentioned possible reasons to continue reading, here are some of the reasons I that I personally would stop reading a story early on.

1. The characters are not acting believably.  This is particularly important for characters put in bad situations.  I recently read part of a story about a girl with an abusive foster parent.  Clearly, the writer intended me to feel sorry for her.  However, the way she reacted to and thought about her situation felt so unrealistic, so completely different from what I would have felt in her place, that I couldn’t feel sorry for her; I knew all along that the entire situation wasn’t real.  As another example, I once read an article about how to write a good beginning (which I hope for the sake of the author was satire) which gave a sample beginning where the main character finds herself sexually attracted to a guy DURING A PLANE CRASH.  (The author had previously mentioned how physical danger and sexual attraction are both great hooks)  And this brings me to reason number two to stop reading:

2. The author employs a common “hook” tactic at the beginning, but it quickly becomes clear this hook has nothing to do with the actual story.  A confusing first sentence is explained by the next sentence, and I am none the wiser for having to read through two sentences when one would do.  A character is placed in a bad situation that has nothing to do with the rest of the story just to make me feel sympathetic.  A wordy, pretentious first sentence tries to convince me that the author is the next Shakespeare before I even know what the story is about.

3. (This could actually be included in reason two, but it’s so common that it’s worth mentioning separately) It becomes clear that the author is withholding some important information from the readers, information essential to their understanding the actions taking place, simply for the fun of it.  This isn’t to contradict what I said earlier.  Sometimes knowing that all is not as it seems can be a point of interest, but the author should attempt to catch us up with at least one of the characters as soon as possible, so we have a reference point to interpret the action from, even if we know we aren’t hearing the whole story just yet.

4. There’s plenty of exposition, but it’s given in all the wrong ways.  At the beginning of a story, finding the right balance between “show” and “tell” is crucial.  For example, “telling” readers that “so-and-so had had a difficult childhood” probably isn’t going to make them feel particularly knowledgeable about so-and-so.  But saying something like “growing up, so-and-so had been in difficult situation X several times” and then giving a few details about why this was the case and how situation X usually played out, is much more effective than offering flashbacks of every time situation X occurred just to get the point of so-and-so’s difficult childhood across.

It’s also not effective to have other characters remind each other of past events they both experienced just to make the readers more aware of what the characters are like.  I once read a story in which a character A described to character B a prank that character B had played on teacher C, for no other purpose, as far as I could tell, than to inform the readers that character B was the sort of person who would play a prank on his teacher.

5. There’s nobody to root for.  I once read beginning to a story that I thought had a fascinating premise: Alien takes over the body of a human teenager and learns something about earthlings.  Unfortunately, I didn’t develop too much of an interest in the actual plot, because I couldn’t stand any of the characters.  The kid who gets possessed is a whiny wimp, his entire family either hates him or is indifferent to him, his classmates are bullies, and his teacher is stupid.  As for the main character (the only non human character we meet in the first part of the story), he either comes from a remarkably stupid alien race, or else he makes remarkably little effort to blend in to human society.  The only reason he remains undiscovered is because of his human host’s ridiculously bad relationships.

That kind of story doesn’t work for me.  Early on in a story, I need to run into a character who is decent (or at least appears to be redeemable), who wants something I can understand, and who isn’t too stupid to be believable.  I need at least one character, any character, who’s worth caring about.  Otherwise I won’t finish.

Well, these were my thoughts on what makes a good story beginning, which, unfortunately, kind of morphed into a rant on what makes a bad one.  Still, if I managed to give you enough reason to continue reading through all my pet peeves, maybe you’d like to tell me some of yours.  The comment button is at the top of the page.

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