Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Once Upon a Time, or, How to Begin a Novel

When I start a book, I always think it's going to be easier than it really is.

Beginning a story is tricky. Some people start their book before they start their story. They begin with prologues and opening scenes and lay out their groundwork very carefully, like chefs who set out their ingredients ahead of time.

The thing is that, realistically, as writers we don't really have that luxury. Those opening scenes are only good for you, as information about who your characters are. Think about this - if your book doesn't really get going until the fifth chapter, a.) you're banking on a fairly patient reader, and (more importantly) b.) you haven't showcased the best part of your book when it's being looked at by the Powers that Be. Whether it's agents, editors, or a Publishing Committee, remember that even if your readers are willing to settle slowly into a story, it's not likely that anyone in publishing will.

Your first three chapters become more than the beginning of the book - they're your resumé, your proof that you know how to take your readers out for a spin and show them the sights.
Think about your first three chapters as being the pilot episode for a TV series (The pilot for Gilmore Girls is a great example, fyi). You need to give an idea of where you're going and who your principle characters are within those first three chapters. Specifically, introduce the main character, explain her world, set up the main conflict, and introduce the love-interest in the three-chapter time frame.

Bada-bing, bada- boom. You're now ready to write the rest of your novel.

For example: in Nicole Mones The Last Chinese Chef, the main character, Maggie, is an food-writing American widow who goes to China to settle a claim against her late husband's estate. While she's there, she discovers a.) her husband had secrets and b.) the mysterious world of Chinese haute cuisine while writing about chef Sam Liang.

Mones works fast - in the first chapter, she manages to get her protagonist out of her houseboat, onto a plane, in China, and introduced to Sam. All in 17 pages.

The second chapter better establishes Sam as a character and introduces some of the principle supporting cast, Sam's Chinese uncles.

The third chapter showcases Sam's cooking and Maggie's writing. We learn the history of Sam's father, grandfather, and Chinese uncles, as well as several of the tenants of traditional Chinese cuisine.

Likewise, in Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells, Allen has entirely set up the main characters, the love-interest, and the world of magical realism.

In contrast, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson didn't introduce Mikael Blomkvist to Lisbeth Salander for 18 chapters. EIGHTEEN CHAPTERS. Lisbeth doesn't even make an appearance for the first 38 pages, which would be forgivable (it's still in the second chapter) if she weren't the driving force of the book. Mikael, as a character, is fairly bland. Lisbeth is one of the most interesting characters to be written in the last ten years, at least. When you've got someone that good, putting her in the background is a bad idea.

Yes, I know Girl has been an international success. I know, I know. Just because a book is successful doesn't mean it couldn't have been better written.

I mean, Dan Brown, folks.



  1. It's so true about making an impact in your book in the first three chapters...I read alot of books for fun and to review and if the book hasn't grabbed my attention by chapter four...it has lost me.

  2. The first three chapters are my resume...Wow, no pressure, huh? :) Great post, Hillary!

  3. Sarah - nope, no pressure :-) The thing is, you may have written a perfect first three chapters without knowing it. For Sara, I did some serious rewriting of the beginning (you'll notice it's different than the sample chapter in the back of Plain Jayne). But for my first book, author Bonnie Leon advised me to ax the first chapter. Lo and behold, the whole thing was a lot tighter :-)


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