How To Write A Strong Start For Your Novel

How To Write A Strong Start For Your Novel

I revised my Civil War novel Hearts of​ Stone many times before selling it​ to​ Dutton Children’s Books. My editor only had one major suggestion: Consider a​ new beginning.

If you’re revising a​ novel, considering the first scene should be one of​ your last steps. It’s hard to​ know how best to​ begin until you’re sure how the story ends. And although everyone needs to​ revise in​ a​ manner that works for them, writers who perfect every sentence along the way can fall in​ love with sentences or​ scenes that ultimately don’t best serve the story.

Skilled novelists convey character, conflict, setting, and voice in​ the first page, paragraph, even sentence. It’s a​ tall order! But here are eight strategies that command readers’—and editors’—interest.

1. Grab readers’ attention.
Katherine Paterson begins Lyddie, one of​ my favorite children’s novels, this way: “The bear had been their undoing, though at​ the time they had all laughed.” or​ how about this, from Richard Peck’s a​ Long Way from Chicago: “You wouldn’t think we’d have to​ leave Chicago to​ see a​ dead body.” Who wouldn’t want to​ keep reading?

2. Begin with Action.
Here’s Walter Dean Myers powerful opening of​ Monster: “The best time to​ cry is​ at​ night, when the lights are out and someone is​ being beaten up and screaming for help.” Action can also be quiet, as​ in​ Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle: “Keith, the boy in​ the rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as​ he entered room 215 of​ Mountain View Inn.”

3. Arrive mid-conversation.
E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web begins like this: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Lisi Harrison uses dialogue to​ start The Clique: “‘Massie, wipe that confused look off your face,’ Massie’s mom, Kendra, said. ‘It’s really very simple—you’re not going.’” Both opening lines convey conflict.

4. Begin with an​ omniscient passage.
Occasionally, skilled authors begin high above their protagonist before zooming in​ and continuing with a​ more intimate point of​ view. Swallowing Stones, by Joyce McDonald, is​ about the repercussions a​ teen faces after he discharges a​ rifle and accidentally kills a​ schoolmate’s father. in​ the book’s beginning, readers travel with the fatal bullet: “There is​ no stopping it; the bullet rips through the hot summer haze, missing trees, houses, unsuspecting birds, coming to​ roost, finally, like an​ old homing pigeon….” The stage has been set.

5. Begin by mirroring the ending.
An Na does this beautifully in​ a​ Step from Heaven. in​ the opening chapter, the young protagonist describes how being in​ her father’s arms at​ the seashore makes her feel safe: “I am a​ sea bubble floating, floating in​ a​ dream. Bhop.” Her father ultimately leaves his family, and yet in​ the end readers feel hopeful when they read the same words used to​ describe her sense of​ security. Laurie Halse Anderson employs a​ similar technique in​ the opening and closing of​ Fever, 1793. The main character experiences daybreak quite differently in​ the first and last chapters, which reveals how she has matured.

6. State the problem.
Simply stating the problem in​ the first sentence immediately takes readers to​ the story’s emotional heart. “He did not want to​ be a​ wringer,” Jerry Spinelli writes in​ Wringer, about a​ boy destined to​ wring pigeons’ necks in​ a​ local event. Many authors use this technique: “All I’ve ever wanted is​ for Juli Baker to​ leave me alone.” (Flipped, Wendelin Van Draanen.) “I am Mary. I am a​ witch.” (Witch Child, Celia Rees.) “Chapter One: Summer 1849 – in​ which I come to​ California, fall down a​ hill, and vow to​ be miserable here. (The Ballad of​ Lucy Whipple, Karen Cushman.)

7. Let your character reflect.
Julie Johnston begins Hero of​ Lesser Causes with this reflective moment: “It started out as​ a​ peaceful, plodding kind of​ summer, the summer of​ 1946. We didn’t know that our lives would charge wildly out of​ control.” For another example, see Jennifer Donnelly’s lovely Northern Light.

8. Provide a​ prologue.
Some writers hate prologues, but I say if​ it​ works for your story, use it. a​ prologue can help readers feel how desperately a​ protagonist does not want something to​ happen, as​ Jerry Spinelli does in​ Wringer. it​ can help readers understand what a​ character is​ about to​ lose, as​ Pam Munoz Ryan does beautifully in​ Esperanza Rising. And it​ can set a​ tone, as​ Gary Paulsen does in​ the marvelous prologue to​ The Winter Room.

Ultimately, I decided to​ write a​ prologue for Hearts of​ Stone. The novel originally began in​ the summer of​ 1863. Fifteen-year-old Hannah’s father had already left their home on Cumberland Mountain in​ East Tennessee to​ fight for the Union Army. Hannah is​ estranged from her friend Ben because his father had joined the Confederate Army. Soon orphaned, Hannah shepherds her younger siblings on the long trip to​ a​ Nashville refugee camp, all the while longing to​ get back home.

The problem? Too many crucial events were lost in​ back story. My new prologue is​ set in​ 1861, when Hannah’s father announces that he’s joining the army, and it​ allows readers to​ meet Ben while his relationship with Hannah is​ still good.

Finally, I worked on a​ first sentence that could reveal both Hannah’s conflict with her father and her strong sense of​ place. The book now begins this way: “Pa ripped our family apart just as​ spring began whispering sweet promises up on Cumberland Mountain.”

Hearts of​ Stone’s review in​ Kirkus concluded with a​ prediction that “Readers will be hooked from the start.” I’m glad my editor asked for a​ new beginning. Sometimes it​ really does make sense to​ save the first for last.

How To Write A Strong Start For Your Novel

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