Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Let's NOT Start at the very Beginning

This is going to be a novel approach to talking about writing a novel (excuse the pun). I’m calling in my alter ego, Frances di Plino, to guest post over the next few weeks on the subject. The reason I’m not making the posts as Lorraine Mace is that I haven’t yet had a novel published under my own name. Frances, on the other hand, is not only a published author of a crime/thriller (Bad Moon Rising published last year by Crooked Cat Publishing), but she is also in the throes of finishing off the next in the Paolo Storey series, Someday Never Comes. All of which means that Frances, rather than Lorraine, is the person best placed to give tips and advice on the long, hard slog to your first published novel.

So, bye bye, Lorraine, for now, and hello to Frances.

Let’s not start at the very beginning (even though it’s usually a very good place to start, as Maria sang in The Sound of Music).

This week’s question is: have you started your novel in the right place? Some good advice, given to me more years ago than I care to recall, was to start your opening chapter as close to the action as you possibly can.

You want to get your readers instantly involved in the plot and in the lives of the characters. You need the readers to be invested emotionally and intellectually in what happens next. Open with dialogue, action, or both, but make sure you hook your readers from the first paragraph.

Don’t bog down the opening with background information. Any necessary back-story can wait until a later chapter to be revealed by the characters themselves – through their thoughts, words and deeds. Let’s face it, if your character is in a life or death situation, or about to suffer a traumatic event (love affair ends/parent dies/partner seriously ill/going bankrupt/uncovers deception/gets caught out doing something wrong), the last thing you want to do is take away from the impact of that by telling the reader how the character came to be there in the first place.

Did your protagonist have a troubled upbringing or toxic parents? Who cares? What’s important to the reader is how the character deals with the situation he or she is in right now.

Don’t describe characters in those opening paragraphs. It doesn’t matter what colour the heroine’s hair is if she’s hanging by her fingernails from a cliff. The man’s height and build is immaterial if he’s facing down the wrong end of gun. Showing your characters in action, and letting the reader see how others react to them, gives a much better image of them than any description can achieve.

Do you have a prologue? If yes, is it really necessary? I believe prologues should be used for only the following two reasons – if yours doesn’t satisfy one of them, then I don't think need it.

If you really, truly, hand on heart and hope to die, believe you simply have to provide the backstory or your novel will fail, you can do it in a prologue. BUT this shouldn’t be an information dump. The prologue should read like a short story and leave the reader hooked (a bit like chapter one – hmmm).

You can use a prologue to show a scene near the end of the story, and then the novel itself tells the reader how that moment came to pass. In other words, show the character at a moment of high drama (also a bit like chapter one – double hmmm).

The acid test as to whether or not you need a prologue (or you just jump straight into chapter one) is to ask yourself two questions:

If I used this as chapter one, would the story still work?
Am I writing a prologue simply to hook the reader?

If you answered yes to either question, you don’t need a prologue, you need to work harder on getting chapter one to work for you.

If you would like to know more about Frances di Plino, why not subscribe to the free newsletter? A free prize draw will be taking place to give away an e-book copy of Bad Moon Rising to one of the first 100 subscribers. 

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Irene Pizzie said...

Great advice. But don't let 'not starting at the very beginning' put you off starting at all. You can write the backstory, you can tell us just what the main character had for dinner, you can even call it Chapter 1 if that helps. Then, take Frances's advice and cut, cut, cut or reposition your exposition until your novel starts where the action is.

Lorraine Mace said...

Good point, Irene. If it helps to get everything down in order to move on to chapter two, there's no harm in it - as long as some strong editing takes place before the novel is submitted anywhere. It's important for the author to know all about the character (including what was on the breakfast menu) but only things essential for the reader to know should appear in the final draft.

Nancy Jardine said...

Advice to take to heart!

tom gillespie said...

Brilliant Lorraine!!