How to begin a novel – part 3 – Me, Myself and I

Pirate skull and treasureWe continue our series on how to begin a novel by looking at opening with a first person description.

In my opinion (and in the context of book beginnings), first person narrative tends to be an ‘all or nothing’ device. In order for it to work, the narrator’s ‘self-description’ has to be both captivating and an intrinsic part of the opening chunk of the novel. It’s probably going to set the tone and style for the whole story.

The ‘Me, Myself and I’ novel opening clearly emulates an autobiography however the latter has the advantages of the writer being real and (probably) famous and also that the reader has actively sought out the book in order to know more of the author’s life. A work of fiction rarely has such a captive audience and thus our ‘explosion’ when applied to a first person description in this way must establish interest from the off. The archetypal cliché ‘I was born at an early age’ will cut no ice with a browsing customer who will simply stifle a yawn and return the book.

The knack is to make the narrator exciting and interesting but without giving away the goods too soon (why bother reading the book if the first page tells you all you need to know?) or causing system-overload in the reader’s head through providing them with a birth-to-now, blow-by-blow curriculum vitae.

I think the key to how to succeed with this type of opening lies in harking back to the classic ‘good guy/bad guy’ productions. It’s impossible to get much more minimalist than ‘The Man With No Name’ but, within seconds of his appearance, the audience is wanting to know:

  • Who is he?
  • What does he want?
  • Where does he come from?
  • What’s he going to do?

In other words, they’re hooked. If this were a book, they would have already bought it and be racing off to somewhere quiet where they can greedily consume its contents.

The principal point from this is that you need to give just enough information but no more. Its tightrope nature renders it a difficult style to master but a winner if done properly.

The ‘keep it lean and mean’ and ‘less is more’ idea has not always been the case and readers were once prepared to plough through much more by way of a preamble than they are nowadays. For example, look at the opening to Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe:

I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, though not of that Country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called, nay we call ourselves, and write our name Crusoe, and so my companions always called me.

This was written nearly 400 years ago and (setting aside the book’s antiquated notions of racial superiority) it’s hard to think that, with such an opening, it would rise far up today’s book rankings. The description is rather tedious and largely irrelevant to what is to come and, if these details are eventually needed by the story, they could easily be covered later in the narrative.

A more modern ‘Me, Myself and I’ type opening can be found in I, Claudius by Robert Graves which was written 80 years ago. It even begins with the dreaded ‘I’ pronoun.

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.

Gravescleverly overcomes the need to avoid the repetition of ‘Me, myself and I’ by mocking himself with some of the insulting names he claims to have been called. This immediately engages readers by invoking their feelings towards these names and makes them want to find out more about Claudius. The opening text also makes it clear that this is not a dry and weighty tome about a long-dead Roman Emperor.

This autobiographical style frequently works well with a rip-roaring adventure and this is illustrated by the opening paragraph of King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. It immediately describes someone who’s been in a scrap or two and who’s now looking back on a recent and exciting adventure which has made him a great fortune.

You’re immediately caught up in it.

I would, however, snag it on two counts. Firstly, I feel it is a bit too self-deprecating for current tastes and, secondly, the length of the first paragraph makes it a bit difficult to scan read however these are things which could be easily remedied by a good editor.

It is a curious thing that at my age–fifty-five last birthday–I should find myself taking up a pen to try to write a history. I wonder what sort of a history it will be when I have finished it, if ever I come to the end of the trip! I have done a good many things in my life, which seems a long one to me, owing to my having begun work so young, perhaps. At an age when other boys are at school I was earning my living as a trader in the old Colony. I have been trading, hunting, fighting, or mining ever since. And yet it is only eight months ago that I made my pile. It is a big pile now that I have got it–I don’t yet know how big–but I do not think I would go through the last fifteen or sixteen months again for it; no, not if I knew that I should come out safe at the end, pile and all. But then I am a timid man, and dislike violence; moreover, I am almost sick of adventure. I wonder why I am going to write this book: it is not in my line. I am not a literary man, though very devoted to the Old Testament and also to the “Ingoldsby Legends.” Let me try to set down my reasons, just to see if I have any.

Beginning a novel with a description of you, the narrator, is perfectly valid but, if you’re going to make it work, both the description and the subsequent story need to support your choice of style. The picture you paint must be enticing and interesting, the reader must quickly be made to care about the narrator, and the whole needs to engross from the outset. You’ve simply got to have a strong storyline or this type of opening will not work.

When it comes down to it, there’s no point opening up shop if you don’t have something to sell.

To be continued.