Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Yesterday I opined about what makes a great beginning to a book. But beyond the first page, a strong structure sustains a reader’s interest, and that’s what we’re going to look at today.
Recently I was looking over the table of contents for a project one of my clients was creating. It seemed really complex, and I was struggling to see why the ideas were strung together as they were. Then, in the middle of the manuscript, I saw a chapter in which the author shows that the problem being examined has roots in childhood. Ah-ha! That’s where the book needs to begin, I realized.
Often the best structure, especially for a nonfiction book, is linear–start at the beginning and move forward. If you’re writing a personal story about a life-changing event, usually the best way to tell the story is from start to finish. Sometimes writers become caught up in wanting to structure their books with bells and whistles and special flourishes. But that can lead to gilding the lily. Just tell us the story well with a simple structure that has clean lines.
Fiction, too, can be fraught with peril in where to begin. One of the most common problems with a novel is that it’s started in the wrong place–in material that is backstory. As I’ve pondered why writers make this mistake so regularly, I’ve concluded that the author is so caught up in what makes the character respond to the story’s major conflict, that the writer thinks the reader will want to know that info right up front; so the protagonist will be sympathetic. But motivations should be woven in bit-by-bit, not handed to the reader by fistfuls at the outset. Draw us in through the conflict, not through motivations. And if your novel isn’t coming together as well as you had hoped. Drop the first two chapters. Or even start in the middle of the novel rather than where you started it initially.
Just for fun
Can you guess what books these opening lines are from?
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.'”