Monday, November 28, 2011

Good beginnings

This month's exercise at the Compuserve Books and Writers Community has been a really interesting one- we've been looking at the opening pages of everyone's novels, and what makes a great beginning to a story.

We've talked about this from a few different angles here at ATWOP before- see here- so I won't rehash too much. We all know what makes for a great start to a book for us as individual readers.

But what has been *really* interesting in this exercise has been the effect of reading a whole lot of different novel openings one after the other, mimicking slightly what a slush pile reader must have to do. There were about 30 participants in the first part of the exercise, so 30 novel openings to read, and another ten or fifteen in the second part. When you need to read a lot of different and varied openings in a row, you find that things start to stand out fairly starkly in terms of what makes you want to stop reading instead of carrying on.

For example, the obvious- bad spelling, grammar and word choice. While I wouldn't expect to find this in a published book (assuming everyone is doing their job right!), I'd give it a whole lot more leeway in an average critique. In this case, though, it tended to draw an instant "no" for me- as in, if I were an agent reading that, I wouldn't even care what the story was about. I wouldn't get that far.

Another thing that probably wouldn't bother me in individual stories but drove me nuts when reading in volume was the slow start. I don't mean that I'd pass on anything but a car chase/ nuclear apocalypse/ sex scene (actually, I can't imagine any of those three making me want to read more unless they're really well done)- just that if I don't feel a critical sense of movement in several openings, I start to get impatient. Who are these characters? What are they doing? What do they want? It doesn't all have to be on the first page, but I need a little hint of it and a definite sense that I'm progressing through a story-in-progress- not just waiting around for one to start. And the interesting lesson in this is, it might work okay in your story- but if your story lands on a slush pile full of similar beginnings, there's a good chance it won't get through.

There are lots more interesting lessons to be learned from the exercise- though the real trick is, figuring out how to apply it all to your own work, and not getting lost in the immense wealth of varied personal opinions.

With fairly good timing, I happened to start reading a book this week that in my opinion has one of the best opening chapters I've read in a while- Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. Kind of appropriate, since it's also the most famous NaNoWriMo novel in existence. I think the opening of this story is a really good example of a couple of the most important things that make a good opening. The first paragraph doesn't do anything spectacular, but I already knew I was going to want to keep reading after only this much:

Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.

For me, the best things about this paragraph and the rest of the first page are the strength of voice from the first line, and the way the author has managed to seamlessly stitch in lots and lots of great detail to set the scene and paint the background of what's going on. Voice came up over and over again in our November Exercise as a major factor in what made a good opening. And for me, my favourite openings all had lots of small detail that didn't attempt to steal the spotlight from what should always be the main show- the characters, their interactions and their actions.

If you haven't read it, you can read the whole first chapter of Water for Elephants here- just scroll down the page to Read an Excerpt and expand it.

All in all, lots of food for thought.


  1. I read Water for Elephants just a few months ago - and I agree, it's the voice that gets you right away.
    Bad grammar is always a turn off for me [g] especially if I'm reading slush-pile mode. But as usual, a great voice and intriguing story will triumph even over misplaced modifiers and missing apostrophes.

  2. ~a definite sense that I'm progressing through a story-in-progress- not just waiting around for one to start~

    Inspiring start to my Monday, Claire. Thank you!

  3. What I like about that paragraph (aside from what you've stated) is there's no warm up. It could have been lifted from any chapter in the book. She drops you into the story and off you go.

    I haven't read the book, that's just my impression of the first paragraph. IS that the first paragraph? :)

  4. Lori, that is the first paragraph :)

    She achieves something important with it- she does drop the reader right into the story without any warm up, but she also does it in such a way that you don't find yourself stumbling around, confused about where you are. You're with a particular person, in a particular place, and you're anchored by a dented tin plate and a burger, amongst other things. It lets you get your bearings without trying to tell you too much in advance, but it also sets you on a moving train.

  5. It's that not telling the reader too much part that I like, and what makes it feel to me like dropping in in medias res. She wrote it as if we already know all we need to to make sense of the scene (like all the rest was explained in the preceding chapter, if only it existed), and she dropped in those details that ground but don't distract or dilute, as you would do in a scene from chapter two or seven when the story is rolling along. That takes SKILL and a discernment that I hope one day to master.

  6. I didn't know Water for Elephants was a NaNo novel. Now I'm doubly impressed. That was the first novel in a long long time that has grabbed me and kept me on the ride from beginning to end.

    I must be one of the only people in the world though who has worked in both the places the story was set, a rest home and a circus. She had her background and nuances of both, just exactly right.

    I love that book.

  7. Jill, I don't think I knew you'd worked in a circus- how fascinating is that :) There was a real sense of authenticity to both of those settings, even for a reader with only passing acquaintance with both. I think that's because her characters were simple but perfectly rounded- their motivations were neatly set up and their reactions to everything were true to themselves.

    Funny, but when I wrote this blog post, I hadn't read the ending- and I loved the ending maybe even more than I loved the beginning. Absolutely brilliant.