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.'”
Teri D. Smith
The first line if from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Backstory in fiction is indeed a problem. Since the author has to know it, its such a temptation to share too much of it. Its better to keep it like a bit of mystery given in tidbits, building to a time when someone must know it.
I knew the first one but had to look up the second. I was guessing it was from a Willa Carther novel. I’ve never read it.
ha, i was correct. the first was easy. the second I had to think a minute but I got it.
“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.”
I agree, janet. I think a lot of authors are afraid they won’t be understood so they give away the motivations–I see this particularly in a lot of prologues that fiction writers bring me at conf. And I always say, just let this evolve–it’s crucial information but don’t give away your character yet.
Joyce, isn’t it true that authors, who have worked so hard on their research and thinking about their characters, often want to start out with those details because it such dang hard work to develop all that goes into the book? It’s as if the author were saying, “I can’t wait for you to meet my protagonist. You’re going to love her because…” And off the writer skips into the sunset, hand-in-hand with the lead character–leaving the reader behind in the dust.
Oh, and if you’ve figured out the author of the second quote, don’t tell on the blog but give others a chance to work it over. Just for fun, you know.
I agree and when you finally GET it, it is so much better to hold off on those details, the writing becomes so much better and it actually becomes fun to write that way. It becomes a journey.
Ha! It’s To Kill a Mockingbird and [_______].
This is an interesting post. I’ve struggled with the opening of my novel for a long time before I learned in media res.
Hmmm…I’m still a little insecure about it.
Teri D. Smith
I think Dwight Swain has one of the clearest expositions of how and where to start a novel I’ve ever read. The prose is a bit tedious, but the reasoning is great.
It’s in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer.
A J Hawke
Thanks, Janet, a useful post.
It helped me understand why,
after cutting my first two
chapters, and sprinkling the
info in small bits in other chapters,
I feel more secure about the beginning
of my novel.
Thanks, Teri, for the reference to Dwight Swain’s book. We all can use as much help as we can get.
Brian T. Carroll
I just finished my MFA, and book one was on the short list I read several times before the exit exam. I had to Google the second book, and find it’s one that was highly recommended throughout my program, and yet I never felt tempted to read it. I think the title puts me off, and the excepts published in LIFE, when the book first came out, presented the violence in a voyeuristic way that offended me.
My problem has not been opening too early in the story, but too far into the action. I was trying to present some of my best drama as off-screen back-story. But I’m learning.
This was my problem with my book. I did so much research and the outline of the book is detailed, but where to start is the question. I wrote Chapter 1 and then decided to do a prologue. The original prologue had too much information (like you said, handing everything to the reader at once). I took the second prologue and gave them a teaser, a scene, so that when the big conflict happens it won’t be a surprise. I decided against dumping all the information at once into the prologue.