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In the Beginnings
by Vicki Hinze.
For the author of commercial fiction, writing an effective opening is critical. Studies show that an editor--the author's first reader--will develop an opinion of the work in the first three novel pages. If we are to encourage that editorial opinion, or impression, favorably, then we authors must carefully craft the novel opening so that anticipated elements are indeed presented in our opening pages.
What are those elements? In my opinion, first and foremost is what author/critical analyst extraordinaire, Laverne Brigman, deems the author's three primary responsibilities to the reader--the three Cs: Capture, Captivate, and Convince.
We must capture the reader's attention. Meaning, hook the reader, draw him or her into the story. Often writers do this by raising a question that pertains to a universal theme (because those are readily recognizable to a majority of readers)--a question the reader wants answered. Another method used by authors is to place a character in a situation that the reader finds interesting, so that the reader wants to know "what happened" to the character.
Example: In my first Seascape, Beyond the Misty Shore, the opening sentence reads: "T.J. MacGregor tried to leave Seascape Inn, but every time he crossed the property's boundary line, he blacked out." The first question that typically comes to mind is, Why? That question raised, niggles at the reader, who then wants to continue reading to find the answer.
In Upon A Mystic Tide, I opened with: "Body language never lies." When I wrote it, it raised a "Prove it" attitude in my mind, and so the character's non-verbal language reflect that theme throughout the rest of the book, substantiating the claim. Due to discretion, manners, wisdom, or a myriad of other emotions, we often don't say what we mean. But our body language seldom betrays our true feelings.
In the case of T.J. not being able to cross the boundary line, Robert Newton Peck, author of Fiction is Folks, calls this "matter out of place." Normally, people don't run into this situation--where they black out on trying to leave an inn. So when T.J. does, it arouses our interest because it's atypical. By capturing the reader's attention with a strong hook--one that has a universal theme (one we can believe could happen to us, one we can identify with)--we create interest, curiosity, and empathy between the reader and the character. That interest spurs the reader to learn answers and to continue reading our story.
As well as capturing the reader's attention, the author must hold onto it. Must captivate the reader into suspending disbelief, into feeling close to the character, into caring what happens. Very often this captivation is accomplished by the author by way of the author introducing conflict. Conflict is the backbone of the story. Without it, there is no story.
For example, if in the second paragraph of Beyond the Misty Shore, I'd written that T.J. MacGregor felt guilty and that's why he couldn't leave Seascape Inn, the reader would have his/her question answered and wouldn't feel compelled to continue reading the novel. Why? Because I would have introduced a conflict, but not maintained it, nor given the novel balance.
In a novel, the main character must want something. Must have a specific goal. But if there isn't an antagonist (person, place, or thing) who attempts to stop the character from achieving that goal, or if the goal is an unworthy one (money is never enough), then where's the conflict? The protagonist is expected to struggle to achieve some high goal: one worthy of an admirable character. A character the reader respects, wants to emulate. Without a worthy antagonist, the protagonist has no struggle. And without that struggle, the reader can't know that the character is admirable because there's no conflict through which the author can depict the character's admirable qualities.
One thing I must mention here. Conflict is not arguing, or the characters spatting with each other over trivial misunderstandings that rational adults would resolve through clear communication. Conflict isn't petty trials, or contrived situations. The best conflict is one borne of the characters. A hole, if you will, in their character, caused by something that happened in their past which, through the story events, the characters will struggle and fill. This depicts character growth, which is essential in any novel.
If the character remains unchanged at the end of the book, then there was nothing gained in the book. The character might as well have stayed home. And the reader will wish she hadn't wasted her time reading your book. The bond of trust between the author and the reader must never, never, be violated.
So the protagonist wants something worthy. The antagonist wants to keep the protagonist from gaining that something worthy, believing himself just and right and perhaps even noble in attempting to stop this acquisition. Remember, an antagonist who is pure evil is not nearly so formidable nor chilling as one who is evil and strong and feels his actions are logical and just.
Introduce your conflict early in the opening pages. Plunge the character into the middle of trouble--matter out of place--and then craft the building conflict so that the character's ability to achieve this goal is dubious because a worthy antagonist with an agenda of his own is complicating the protagonist's struggle to achieve his goal. In doing this, the reader remains captivated.
Not only must the author capture the reader's attention and maintain that captivation, he or she must convince the reader that the story events are actually taking place. It helps to think of this as a three-legged stool. Capture, Captivate, and Convince are each a leg. If any one of them is weak, the stool wobbles. If too weak, the stool collapses.
To convince readers, the craft-oriented author will incorporate several writer's tools to accomplish this task and set out to convince the reader on at least two levels: emotional and physical.
Emotional: By implementing a universal theme--easy for the reader to identify with--the reader can suspend disbelief, accept that what the author is saying happens can truly happen. That the story events are logical and they lack convolution or contrivance schemes.
Physical: Incorporating concrete, vivid details into your writing convinces the reader that he/she is on-scene. Your details create images in the reader's mind that plant him or her in the scene and permit the reader to become an active participant in the story. The five senses, incorporated, allow the reader to forget that he or she is reading words on a page and transport that reader so that he or she is living the story.
Remember that the details you choose to incorporate in your novel do the work of several writer's tools. If the details carry dark and negative connotations, or ones we typically associate with fear or negative emotions, they you've manipulated the tone, set your novel as one that is dark and suspenseful--mysterious.
If conversely you choose lighter-tone details, then that sends the message to the reader that this novel will be a less intense read. This doesn't mean that you can't mix light and dark conflicts/tones in your novels. You can blend them. But these first pages should set the tone for the overall feel of the novel, and to play fair with the reader, they should set that tone accurately.
My favorite examples of this method: 1. An old man is standing beside a pond. His son has just died. What are the details he notes? Murky water, moss-draped oaks choked by wisteria vines. Physical details which convey his emotional sense of loss and mourning. 2. Same pond. A young girl who has just learned to ride her bike. What are the details she notes? Sun-spangled water, leaves blowing freely in the breeze.
Physical details which convey her emotional sense of freedom and accomplishment. An editor wants to be captured, captivated, and convinced by your novel, but he/she also wants to see specific story elements in those crucial first pages.
What elements are essential that the editor is expecting there?
1. Setting. Where is the story taking
place? Is the time it takes place evident and clear?
Motivation is one of the strongest empathy tools an author can (and must) utilize. Remember to make your characters' motivations ones worthy of them. Writing an effective opening which captures, captivates, and convinces the reader and imparts vital information without making the reader feel she's being force-fed that data is an art. It's one the writer acquires through experience, through reading novel beginnings and studying the craft techniques incorporated by other writers to determine what made that particular opening effective--or ineffective.
Just as editors look for specific elements that they anticipate being in those opening pages, they also look for elements that they do not expect to see there. Elements that leap off the page for the wrong reason, jar the editor's or reader's attention, and remind him/her that this story isn't real, that he/she is reading. While "never" never applies in writing--there are always exceptions--be suspicious of the following opening elements and ask yourself if perhaps a different element would work harder for you:
1. The weather. It's been done to death.
While this isn't a manual on how to write the beginning of a novel, I hope you'll find value in its contents. It does disclose the elements that editors, thus readers, expect to see and expect not to see. An actual novel beginning might be a page or half a book. (The middle begins when the character decides to act against the conflict presented.) But for the purposes of this article, the beginning refers to the opening pages of your novel.
Every rule made can be broken. But our goal as writers is to break rules not out of ignorance but for a purpose. One that serves to make our stories stronger. One that aids us to capture, captivate, and convince.
[Author's Note: This article is in part based on a lecture by Laverne Brigman, author, critic, and President of Emerald Coast Writers Guild, who graciously permitted me to build a workshop around her Three Cs.]