16 June 2015

novel openings

I've been thinking a lot about novel openings lately. It shouldn't surprise you that a good novel opening is a lot like a good short story opening. One of our most popular blog posts ever was our short story cheat sheet, and it has a lot of great tips for short stories. I was inspired to write this after Editor Betsy and I taught a workshop on writing short stories.

Focusing more specifically on speculative fiction novels, however...

  • You really need to have a character within the first couple of pages, ideally on the first page. This is because the reader identifies with the characters. If there's no character, who do they identify with? Keep in mind fiction is unique in that the reader gets to become another person via this identification. This initial character should be the protagonist, but it doesn't have to be.
  • In chapter one your character needs to have a problem or some other unique situation. This is the first appearance of 'plot' and it needs to at least hint at the major conflict of the novel. Also this should be related to the protagonist's character arc.
  • On page one you should give the reader some idea of setting in terms of time and space. I do not recommend a long description or a big info dump--just give us a sentence here and there. As an aside, paragraphs of info dump are old-fashioned; don't do it.
  • Your novel opening should be consistent with your genre. You read a lot in your genre, right? If you don't know what your genre is: figure it out ASAP.
  • You should know your novel's theme or big idea and chapter one should be consistent with it. Your theme is the take-away from your novel. Similar plots can have very different themes. For example, if your novel's plot is the zombie apocalypse ... What's the theme? The theme basically guides you in how you tell the story. Perhaps your protagonist moves heaven and earth to save his daughter, in which case the theme is 'family is everything.' Or, perhaps, the protagonist cures the zombies via medical expertise, in which case the theme is 'science can save us.' You get the idea.
Good luck with your novel openings!

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