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.

How to begin a novel – part 2 – setting the scene

In the first part of this series we looked at why a book’s opening is so important to sales. Now we’re going to continue by looking at the different types of openings and how they should be handled.

Opening a novel with a description of a location is one of the most popular options. In fact it even has its own expression – setting the scene.

Long before books were available to the masses, stories were conveyed verbally by actors. However, before they appeared, the ‘stage would be set’ with painted backdrops and a variety of inanimate objects. For convenience, this stage would be prepared in advance of the play’s beginning (as far as was possible) because this would probably be done by the actors themselves before they went into character.

But there was much more to the psychology of scene setting than just plain convenience. The backdrops gave the audience an opportunity to absorb the location (quite possibly way outside of their normal experiences) and to suspend disbelief.

And that’s what you should be doing if you are proposing to begin your novel with the description of a location.

Now back to my earlier blog comment about the need for an ‘explosion’. Clearly with such a narrative there is little scope for anything particularly exciting to happen (I’m leaving aside battle scenes and such because they’ll be covered in a different part of this series), but that doesn’t mean it can be glossed over.

Here’s an example of opening scene-setting from Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native:

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.”

A more modern scenic description which I feel is particularly successful in its aim can be found in Wilbur Smith’s A Falcon Flies:

“Antoinette 1860

Africa crouched low on the horizon, like a lion in ambush, tawny and gold in the early sunlight, scared by the cold of the Benguela Current.”

Both these beginnings make you want to read more – the whole idea of the opening paragraphs – because it’s precious little good being erudite if no-one’s buying your books.

Returning to Hardy’s description – look at his second paragraph. It is full of dark forebodings and turns the heath into a menacing character which would have sent shivers down the spines of readers.

If you’re going to start with a description of a place, it needs to be inspired, fascinating and concise. Just as a watercolour artist will pick out the key details in a picture, you must focus on the principal aspects of your backdrop and combine their description with a carefully balanced and captivating application of language. Look again at the use of similes in the two examples – Hardy’s ‘tent’ and Smith’s ‘lion’.

Keeping it to the point is key, though, and Smith’s shorter description with its unexpected verbs (crouched, scared) is a much better solution for a modern readership which might be less inclined to plough through a Hardy-like description. Think how you would describe your scene and then seek to strip it down to its bare essentials. Having done that, decide how you can vitalise these with a few well-placed interesting adjectives and verbs.

Be careful not to over-egg the pudding, though. Just as a cluttered set would have prevented the actors from putting on their show, an overlong or over-fussy scenic opening can come across as self-indulgent and, well, just plain boring. The explosion comes from being lean and mean and making the reader wonder what’s going to happen.

Continued >>

How to begin a novel – part 1

GrenadeI first began to theorize about how stories were constructed when I was at school. I remember a particular book (please do leave its title as a comment if you know which one I’m referring to because I’ve long since forgotten it) which decreed that a story should begin with an explosion and then work its way up to a crescendo. To a young teenage mind interested in the art of writing, it sounded exciting and I took it at face value. Of course I know now that I was taking it far too literally.

Applied to an action novel (‘explosion’ here taken to mean any extreme, sudden and disrupting event), this type of opening tells the reader to expect a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride – perfect for an adrenalin junkie. It’ll grab them from the first sentence and make them want to read more. The opening sequences to Bond films are collectors’ items in themselves and fans are always keen to see what dire predicament our hero will find himself in before the opening credits.

But this type of opening doesn’t sit well with many other genres. The whole point of most dramas, romances, tragedies etc are that they build up to a single crescendo – i.e. the ‘energy pattern’ (for want of a better phrase) is very different to the ‘hold on to your seats’ storyline. Even if it’s a tale of star-crossed lovers which has plenty of ups and downs along the way, these are normally led up to and not ploughed into from the outset.

So what did the word ‘explosion’ really mean in a general sense?

It is, of course, referring to the requirement for the opening 2 or 3 paragraphs to be attention-grabbing and every novel, short-story or other work of fiction must have them. Unlike non-fiction where you might well be fortunate enough to possess a captive audience, no-one, not even a famous bestselling author has any predetermined right to expect people to buy their book.

Traditionally writers have had publishers to fall back on whereby a battle-hardened editor or their reader would carefully consider the opening scene and decide if it passed muster. Nowadays, with Kindle and all the other forms of self-publishing, authors are left to live or die by their own pen. As a consequence, it only takes a quick scan of the lower ranking books on Amazon to see why they’re in that position. While some have been dropped for lousy content or bad writing, how many are simply being passed by because the opening section ‘doesn’t grab’ buyers?

While there’s clearly no one way in which a novel should be begun (and, if there were, who’d want to buy them?), there are standard type openings which are more or less dictated by the genre. I’m going to look at these over the forthcoming weeks and discuss each one in some detail.

Continued >>