June 10, 2011

Start Your Story Strong - Bonnie Way

I only watched the first half of Benjamin Button.  Then I walked out of the theatre.  Some people said it was a really good movie, but I really have no interest in sitting through the first half again to find out if the last half was any better.  And lately, I find that's become my attitude about movies (and even books); it had better hook me in the first few scenes, or I'll find something more productive to do with my time.

Author Larry Brooks agrees with me on this point.  In his book Story Engineering, he argues that "the most important section of your story is the first part of it.  If you've ever started reading a novel or screenplay and then put it down after an hour—and who hasn't—you know this to be true."

Today's readers, accustomed as we are to the instant nature of everything, from fast food to high speed internet, don't have the patience to sit through a novel that opens slowly.  When the novel was actually novel, authors like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy could take their time setting up characters, backstory, mood, setting.  Now, many readers dismiss eighteenth and nineteenth century authors just because it takes so much "work" to get into them.  (You have to read much further than Brooks' recommended 50 pages to really become interested in Bleak House or Little Dorrit.)

While I know that a Dickens novel will be worth the effort of getting past that slow start, I might not give a new writer that same chance.  And when it comes to my own writing, I know that if I hope to sell my novel, the first part had better be good.  That's the part the editor is going to see first.  The part the reader might skim in the bookstore before buying the book.

So how do you do that?  Create interesting characters—characters who leave us wanting to know more about them, like the three very different sisters in Angela Hunt's The Fine Art of Insincerity.  Ask a question that demands an answer, like what happens if scientific experimentation results in a girl who has wings, as Sigmund Brouwer does in Flight of Shadows.  Set some high stakes, like the crown two brothers each desire to inherit from their father in the recent blockbuster hit Thor.

What novel has grabbed you from the opening pages and kept you reading until the end?  Or what novel have you put down because it failed to hook you?

~ © Bonnie Way (aka The Koala Bear Writer)


  1. I've long been in the habit of picking up a book and flipping to the MIDDLE. Introductions are usually full of thanks yous and how hard the writer has worked to write this book and sometimes can give a hint to the writer's voice, but I've found that if I can't put the book down at wherever I've opened it up, that it possibly could be worth backing up and starting at the beginning. I become curious--why is the character doing what he or she is doing at this particular point?

    One of my favorite authors is Liz Curtis Higgs. Her most recent publications are a retelling of Ruth and Naomi's story, set in 17th century Scotland. You learn about her characters through their ACTIONS and dialogue--no hooks or gimmicks.

    Now, if I could just write that way myself--MUCH easier said than done!

  2. Shauna - I agree with the "much easier said than done." I've often thought that myself! Hopefully as we continue to read great authors like Liz, we'll manage to absorb or understand some of their techniques and use them ourselves. :)

  3. I'm glad you included Sigmund Brouwer's work. The very opening few sentences from his "Broken Angel' (the prequel to 'Flight of Shadows' is masterful - it grips you like nothing else I've read n a long time.
    I hear you on the classics, even though I love many of them. For instance, JAND EYRE is ridiculously boring at the beginning. all that backstory is so unnecessary (by today's standards)

  4. Anonymous4:19 am GMT-7

    I do agree that I like action and getting into a story quickly.

    A friend challenged me to read In the Age of Innocence. It took perseverance but really well worth the read. It seems to pick up midway, or was that because I became interested in the characters by then?

    In fiction I like Lynn Austin the best. Her characters grab me into the story quickly.


  5. I remember picking up a book of Alice Munro short stories, starting to read one and achingly wanting to know how it ended. Fortunately it was at a Scholastic book table event at our school and the teacher in charge let me pick any book I wanted after my volunteer effort. Guess which book I picked!

    I think it's a worthwhile study to analyze how writers hook us with their beginnings.


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