I'm on the third draft of my novel and the opening few paragraphs are a bit of a black hole. I've tried a few things like starting in the middle of the action (too confusing), free writing (too all over the place), looking at the beginnings of some of my favorite books to gain inspiration (too much imitation). Any ideas for inspiration?
Very cool blog post, Janet. I also loved the Sharon Olds poem. Thanks for sharing!
The thing to remember is: there are no magical formulas. A good place to start would be reading "The First Five Pages" by Noah Lukeman, to get you started thinking about how best to solve this problem. The next thing would be to read 2 to 3 books in your genre and see how those authors start their novels.
The important thing to remember is not to start at some maudlin emotional crisis (like a funeral or signing divorce papers), but at the point the narrator (or protagonist) has to face some kind of choice or is about to embark on a new path, and then, later on, they recount their backstory to fill in the details. One of the tricks is to show the protagonist's previous life just a little before the big change comes, whatever that is.
Another trick for starting the novel is to watch movies! Movies always start at exactly the right place. For instance, in the movie, "Secretariat", the movie starts just as the protagonist learns her father has died and she's about to inherit a horse farm (and the chance to raise the next winning foal). The movie "Tootsie" begins with the protagonist, Michael Dorsey, being told he's impossible to work with--a real perfectionist--and he's forced to come up with an innovative idea of getting a job: by changing his identity to female! In "Amadeus", a priest is dispatched to counsel a suicidal and depressed old man in an insane asylum, but instead makes him feel worse by not recognizing any of his musical compositions, which prompts the old man to launch into his life story as a court composer threated by the genius of Mozart, and how he plotted to kill him.
Hope this helps!
Great advice, Sophie. Thanks!
I love Tootsie and Amadeus btw.... :)
I rewrote my opening of Shadow Images 7 times. I finally wrote everything I wanted to about my main character building up to the attack on her. If you're like me, I usually, cut a few pages, okay, I cut two chapters. But I saved what I cut and incorporated some of it into the story after page 50. One of my favorite people, an editor, has a rule, no back story before page 50. Some of it is being incorporated into Book two. And the rest will stay in my character profile. Not sure if this is helping. But start where the action starts. My main character has been raised to keep her promises, I open it with her talking to herself, asking why would you make me promise, something she doesn't want to keep without her Papa there. Keeping promises is a running theme through the story.
I took a course with Drusilla Campbell called NovelCram and she suggests having approximately 2 pages of "eden state" for your character. Then 2 pages in, introduce the "inciting incident" that starts the whole change in your character/adventure you're taking them on. I knew that my character would be at a party where something violent happens...and I thought I might start there, but after the class, I decided to do the "eden state" so readers could get a sense of my character's sense of humor and where she lives, etc. It's a brief look at her life before the incident that turns it upside down. And as far as chronology, my character's eden state scenes are immediately before the party she's attending. So maybe think of that inciting incident and then think about who your character was immediately before that and what they might have been doing. I hope that's helpful!
This isn't so much a 'what to put in the opening' suggestion as a process suggestion. When I'm stuck on any aspect of any piece of writing, I get as far away from it as possible and write a new version. By 'as far away from it as possible' I do mean that I go to a different physical location to write it, but I also mean I use different methods to do so, a pen and a legal pad if I've been typing on my laptop. Or a typewriter. Or if you absolutely cannot write without typing, go to the public library and use a different computer AND a very different font (and perhaps in a larger size). You're not trying to recreate your existing opening or rewrite it, you're writing it again.
This is the kind of practice I call lateral writing. Because sometimes we're looking straight ahead, too focused on where we're going. There may be all kinds of things off to either side that we've missed, that are important, even crucial.
Good luck with finishing your book.
Hi Jeanette .
I love to visit London UK. I head for my favorite part of the city. Kensington and stay at a hotel around d the corner from Kensington Palace.What a better place to set my story. Alexandra Mary Hunter is arriving in London and is looking for a flat in this neighborhood, and so on and so on.
Hope you catch this comment.
From Val H. Canada.
I had the same problem with my first mystery novel, Mixed Messages. I joined a critique group - one of the best things I've ever done - and the first thing the members told me was that my beginning was too slow, it didn't "grab" the reader. Boy, were they right! I rewrote the first two chapters. I moved the dialogue between the main character and her husband (crucial to the plot) to Page 1. Here's the link to my novel in case you'd like to see how I did it.
It's interesting that I encountered the same problem with the sequel, Unfinished Business. Once again, I asked my critique partners what they thought. They offered suggestions and I rewrote the first couple of chapters. The answers were right in front of me - in the first two chapters. I needed fresh eyes and a new perspective to find the solution.