02 February 2015

In the Beginning

A few months ago I volunteered to help judge a writing contest. The contestants were to send in the first 500 words of their novel and I, as a judge, was to grade them in a handful of categories. The categories were pretty standard for a writing contest. Here are a few:

Overall Impressions

First off, any author is sorely tempted (which is why we have editors and beta readers) to give the reader enough hooks and interesting tidbits about the story in the first 500 words that the reader will physically be unable to put the book down. Why did Frank just kill Judy, how on earth did they get into a volcano, he kissed her body as it sunk into the lava and then he just walks away? What's going on here?

I'm here to tell you that it doesn't work.

Believe me, I've tried.

The entries I read all had several things in common—both pros and cons. In an exercise for myself, I am going to spend the next few blog posts looking at beginnings.

I just pulled seven random books off of the bookshelves here in my office, and I read the first page and a half of each one—approximately 500 words. I haven't read any of these particular books in quite a while. I remembered what they were about, but not the specifics on the very beginning. Most of them drew this reaction out of me.

Oh yeah, that's how this whole mess starts.

Which leads me to my first observation about beginnings.

While it is important for the beginning of the book to draw the reader in, it does not need to be the most memorable scene of the story.

The reader doesn't know anything about the character or the world. How can the first 500 words be the most memorable? And if they are, the story has serious problems.

Stories are supposed to take people on an emotional journey. If the journey begins with the car blowing up, then there is no journey, just a bunch of police reports and funerals. And if we didn't know the people in the car, then who cares? There are no emotions attached, which means the reader didn't go anywhere.

The point of each page of a novel is to keep the reader reading. Not every conflict has to be life-threatening, and not every hook needs to be the end of the world. The reader needs enough of interest in the first 500 words to compel them to read on. The next 500 words should do the same.

Like I said, for my own edification, I'm going to delve into this for a while. Because while the first of your story doesn't need to be the most memorable scene, it is among the most important, because if it doesn't grab the reader's eyeballs and force them to keep going back and forth, then the rest of your awesome story wont' ever get read.

Next Time: Feet First (Dive Right in There)

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