PDA

View Full Version : The importance of a hard-hitting Intro...


SFFWorld.com
Home - Discussion Forums - News - Reviews - Interviews

New reviews, interviews and news

New in the Discussion Forum


Pages : [1] 2 3

Shane
July 17th, 2007, 01:53 PM
I'm currently outlining a novel where the main character starts out in a very dull, repetative life-style and it's not until several chapters into the novel that things start to get really exciting. The last third of the novel will revolve around an epic battle between the protagonist's former people and his new-home's community, so while there will be a lot of elements to this book, one of them is definitely going to be hard-hitting action.

The problem I'm having is the beginning. I want the reader to go on the same journey the protagonist is taking, so that as the world opens up to the protagonist the reader goes through the same experiences and emotions, and the first fifty to a hundred pages or so are going to be with the protagonist bored out of his friggin' mind. This is sort of a problem from a marketing perspective, I imagine. I mean, if I submit my first three sample chapters to a publisher or agent and what they read is, essentially an introduction that successfully portrays boredom... not only does it run the risk of them being bored, but it's also going to make the rest of the book feel like it's moving very, very slowly.

So I'm trying to figure out what to do about this. The Lord of the Rings movie is sort of a good example, as the first half an hour or so is basically Bilbo sitting around reading the book he's writing, painting a picture of how happy and quiet Hobbiton is. But in order to let you know that the movie is going to be crammed with action, they first open it up with the background story of the Ring, where you get to see a sort of mini-epic battle between Elves and Men vs. Mordor.

There are two ways I can see to do this. I could do a similar background story, which would in no way show the main protagonist (or any character in the rest of the book), but would be capable of explaining the backstory with a lot of action and excitement. Or I could sort of Tarantino it and jump ahead in time with the main character as he's lying in a pool of his own blood, bad guys standing around him with guns, all his friends dead, and then the book can go back in time as he recalls how he got there.

The problem with the first option is that it doesn't actually have anything to do with the journey the main character goes through, which is sort of the whole point of the book. The second option runs into the problem of removing the chronological importance of his journey, by allowing things to timeskip. Given that it would only happen in the very beginning of the novel, this might be relatively forgivable as this occurance would mark the start of his new life, and going back in time could be used simply to outline what his old life was like. But while this could be forgivable, it's still tacky -- and might I add, overdone -- and it would also still completely disrupt the flow of the journey he's supposed to take. It's actually pretty important that the start of the journey be at the beginning, when he and his life are, well, boring. The contrast to who he'll be by the end of the book, that is, a hardened bringer of death with no appreciation for simple-concepts like Good and Evil, is going to be most apparent if he actually starts out as kind of a wimp, with an unimportant place in an unimporant life.

So how the hell do I work this out? Keeping the beginning boring runs the serious risk of making the beginning of the book boring, or even if it's interesting it might still make the book seem like it's not going to wind up being the orgy of blood and bullets it's destined to become.

Hence my frustration. Any advice? :cool:

jchines
July 17th, 2007, 03:18 PM
Writing about a character who's bored without making the writing boring is a bit of a challenge. And you're right -- especially for a new author, if you don't hook an agent's or editor's interest within the first few pages, they're not going to bother reading any further.

A few thoughts...

When I outline, I usually assume my first few chapters will need to be redone anyway. By the time I finish writing the first draft, the whole story has changed a bit, and the opening scenes I wrote four months ago no longer work. Which means I don't sweat the first few chapters.

Also, it's not unusual to start writing before the story actually begins. I can't count the number of workshops I've done where I read a story, cross out the first four pages, and say, "Your story begins here." I've done it myself, too. Both in short fiction and in novels. So my question would be, is this really where your hero's story begins? If so, why? What makes this the start of his tale?

Abby
July 17th, 2007, 03:22 PM
I think you should handle this by creating some mild conflict that serves the purpose of introducing your main characters and hooks the reader.

Example (good or bad, the book sold a lot of copies): Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World spends the first 100 pages or so in a small village with nothing much happening. He manufactures some conflict by showing some angst in the main character, as he feels out of place among his friends, and sees a weird shadow, and lets his best friend talk him into a stupid prank, and gets embarrassed in front of the girl he likes. It may be a boring provincial life, but the characters are somewhat interesting.

LotR is another good example of this, although I'd hesitate to use it as an example, since it was published in a different era of readers and editors.

The key is, as always, to hook the reader. You can set up something interesting that lets the reader know what sort of person your character is. It doesn't need to tie in to the main plot conflict, but it should serve as a good introduction, and set the tone of the major conflict.

One of the "rules" of writing good fiction (oft repeated, and good advice, IMHO) is to have an emotional value change in every scene. If Character J walks into a store feeling good, the scene inside the store should change his emotional state, so he leaves feeling angry or depressed. If Character S is furious at her mother and gets into an argument, she should leave the argument feeling vindicated or with a new plan of running away.

The situation of your character should change in every scene, even if it's just a little tiny bit.

You also need to show something at stake for your character. Maybe it's his reputation, or his property, or his family or friends. Show that he stands something to lose; he has something to care about. Then put whatever that thing is in jeopardy right away. The threat might be minor, but it will at least show how he deals with threats. This will give the reader an emotional hook, something to identify with.

All righty, hope that helps! I think about beginnings a lot. I'm revising one right now.

lin
July 17th, 2007, 08:52 PM
It is hard for me to tell if the whole "hook me in the first pages or you're headin for the shredder" mentality we hear about it real. If so, it is certainly a cheapening of public literature.

That said, one of the tried n true ways of popping the car chase up front is a ploy I call "switch your first two chapters". You see it a LOT in novels, short stories, films.

You start off the bullets/cars/bombs/fists/tits flying, then cut back to the ordinary pre-plot world to fill in just exactly how the hero came to be hanging from his earphones at 6000 feet with a naked babe over his shoulder.

Or wiring up the device that will kill his wife or whatever.

You actually see this done almost in that many words. "So how'd a cleancut insurance salesman like me end up...." "I never would have believed that I would have sex with a domestic fowl, but when Silas Gorham came to my house that day...." Etc.

James Carmack
July 17th, 2007, 11:45 PM
As with most aspects of our craft there's no one right way to go about it (although some paths are likely more suited for your story than others). The riveting/mysterious teaser prologue is one way to go, of course. I know I'm not using a book for an example, but consider Shawn of the Dead. The first part of the movie establishes Shawn's dull, bleak world, but in the midst of this dreariness, we establish the conflicts among the characters and have some witty banter while subtly setting things up for the main event.

My advice: Try a few different approaches and see what works best for you and your story.

jchines
July 18th, 2007, 07:23 AM
It is hard for me to tell if the whole "hook me in the first pages or you're headin for the shredder" mentality we hear about it real. If so, it is certainly a cheapening of public literature.

Check out http://www.sfrevu.com/ISSUES/2002/0208/Event%20-%20Tor/Page.html and scroll down to the pictures of the Tor slush pile. Given that most publishers receive hundreds or thousands of manuscripts, the fact is that very few editors are going to read them all. Very few are going to read the first chapter of them all.

Established authors get a bit more leeway. If J. K. Rowling writes a dull first chapter, people will continue to read because they trust her to get better. If Joe Nobody does the same thing, he gets trashed.

I'm talking from the perspective of editors and agents, but it holds true for readers as well. How many of us will pick up a book in the store, then glance at the first few pages to see if it interests us?

There are a lot of ways to hook a reader. I started my second book with a goblin's nose-picking injury. Nothing big or flashy there, but it was goofy enough to (hopefully) get a few laughs and draw readers in.

choppy
July 18th, 2007, 08:10 AM
There's a difference between a boring setting and writing that's boring. Similarly, just because you have an exciting setting (an epic battle for example), it doesn't necessarily make the writing exciting.

Even in the setting Shane describes, unless the main character is a hermit, there are other people around him. These people should be living their lives. Each has his or her own story. They have their own vices and their own triumphs.

All you really need is something just a little bit out of the ordinary to capture the reader's attention. Consider a mundane day at the office. People show up to work. Pour their coffee. Check email. Make the first phone calls of the day. And get to work on their first tasks. None of them notice the manilla coloured envelops lightly disted with a frosting of white powder in their inboxes.

lin
July 18th, 2007, 09:55 AM
Established authors get a bit more leeway. If J. K. Rowling writes a dull first chapter, people will continue to read because they trust her to get better. If Joe Nobody does the same thing, he gets trashed.

I'm talking from the perspective of editors and agents, but it holds true for readers as well. How many of us will pick up a book in the store, then glance at the first few pages to see if it interests us?

I've been through this whole discussion so many times, regarding books and scripts, that I'm tired of it.

Two things. You seem to be saying that professional readers are screening books by superficial appeal. Maybe that's true. I avoid slush piles.

And that store buyers choose books by reading the first chapter. Not necessarily true. People tend to buy books because of the blurbs, synopsis, familiarity with the author, recommendations, and their general sense of the authors...well...authority.

Readers are used to books that take awhile to get going, have been buying them for years.

This argument gets REALLY funny talking about films. Obviously people don't get up and walk out if they aren't "grabbed" by the first five minutes of a film. Yet the whole "make me pee my pants on the first page or you're gone" mentality is even more rampant there.

The reading work gets at agents is pubcos is a problem. And posts on boards like this generally make it seem even MORE of a problem. You meet very few published authors who say they jazzed up their first few pages to get early approval.
Whether or not to change your book to fit the tastes of some intern English major or Park Avenue Bennington twit stuck with skimming the slush is one's own decision. I've mentioned a couple of ways to try to front load the story.

jchines
July 18th, 2007, 10:25 AM
I don't know where you get the idea I'm saying books are judged on superficial appeal... It's pretty simple. If you are a new writer trying to land an agent and editor, and your first few pages are boring, the odds are that your book will be thrown out. Superficial? Your writing is being based on a sample of your writing. I'm curious how many pages you think an editor should read before throwing something out. Believe me, having seen a lot of unpublished slush, you can usually make that judgement within a few pages. Often within a few paragraphs.

And speaking as a published author (four books with DAW as well as thirty-plus stories in print), you're darn right I take extra time to work on the early pages of my stories. Having sat on convention panels where other professionally published authors talk about beginnings for an hour, I guarantee I'm not the only one. There's a lot you need to accomplish in the opening pages -- it's a lot of work, and it goes above and beyond adding a few explosions to satisfy some twit.

The research I've seen on why people buy books shows that familiarity with the author is the biggest factor, right up there with word-of-mouth recommendations from a trusted source. But once again, if you're a new author, you don't have previous works, and word-of-mouth is likely to be minimal. So you pray the cover is good enough to get someone to pick up the book. You pray the blurbs are good enough to make them read the back cover and flip through the first few pages. And then you make sure those first few pages are enough to make them shell out $6.99 at the cash register.

Shane
July 18th, 2007, 10:28 AM
Also, it's not unusual to start writing before the story actually begins. I can't count the number of workshops I've done where I read a story, cross out the first four pages, and say, "Your story begins here." I've done it myself, too. Both in short fiction and in novels. So my question would be, is this really where your hero's story begins? If so, why? What makes this the start of his tale?

Mostly the story is about a guy who's grown up in a very small community of people (maybe a thousand, total), none of whom have had any contact whatsoever with anyone beyond themselves. And it's very, very boring. This is important because I intend to use it to show the protagonist as he was before he left his home; that is, generally sort of a wimp, with a spirit that has been utterly crushed because pretty much from day one he's lived in a place where tomorrow is going to be exactly the same as today. His crushingly monotonous life is important because one of the running themes throughout the story is how heavily extreme circumstances affect you in the long run. So on the day when he's actually forced to leave his community, and go on what is essentially a hero's quest in an incredibly dangerous world that he's never experienced before, you really are going to see how far he's come by the end of the story.

It's just not going to have the same effect if I start the book off by saying "His life was boring up until this point." The mental and emotional journey he goes through is the most important aspect of the story.



I think you should handle this by creating some mild conflict that serves the purpose of introducing your main characters and hooks the reader.

There will definitely be mild conflict in the beginning of the story. The trouble I'm having is having the book start out with the promise of an action-packed epic adventure while still doing his home justice, in that it's basically a place where he's forced to do the same thing day after day after day. Any sort of real excitement is going to throw that whole feeling way out of whack, which is a pretty significant problem.

Also, I'm worried that making the beginning of the book have its own sort of significant conflict that doesn't actually have anything else to do with the rest of the story is just going to seem out of place. It might be okay if whatever it is, at the end or middle of the book he recalls "And man, to think that I got so bent out of shape about burnt marshmellows back home." But again, the problem with that is that burnt marshmellows probably just isn't a very exciting way to open a book.

I'm trying to plot this story as efficiently as possible, though, is the bottom line. I don't enjoy reading stories where the characters randomly wander off for a hundred pages or so that doesn't really serve any purpose to the story except as filler.

I liked what you said about having an "emotional value change" every scene. That's given me some useful direction.


That said, one of the tried n true ways of popping the car chase up front is a ploy I call "switch your first two chapters". You see it a LOT in novels, short stories, films.

Yeah, I mentioned this as a possibility in my opening post. The problem with this, is well, 1) as you said, you see it a LOT already, and 2) it just hurts the pacing of the story, as well as the impact of the journey he's going on. I'd really hate to ruin that journey simply to provide the story with a strong opening.



Thanks for the advice everyone. This is definitely helping me get on the right path, even if I'm not exactly sure where it's going to take me.