After focusing on writing life for the last few writing posts, I thought I’d get back to craft, and what better place to start than at the beginning?
Beginnings are tricky because this is where you hook readers. It’s where you sell the book, whether to a publisher or to the reader. If the first few pages don’t suck someone into the story, readers will never know that the middle is engrossing or the ending is terrific.
The beginning also seems to be the part of a novel that changes the most over time. The openings of books published just twenty years ago are different from what’s being published now. The change is even more drastic if you go back farther than that. I’ve tried re-reading some of my favorite fantasy novels from the 1970s and early 80s, and I have a hard time getting into them. I’m not sure that some of them would be published today. There’s not a lot of room for the opening chapter being about peaceful life on the farm before the mysterious wizard shows up and tells the entire history of that world and then asking the farmboy to join him on a quest. Our entertainment landscape has changed so much that attention spans are getting shorter and people expect to get right into the story. There’s also so much competition for eyeballs. If your opening doesn’t grab people right away, it’s too easy for them to instantly get another book on an e-reader, or find something to watch on Netflix, or surf the Internet.
One thing that seems to be going by the wayside is what you could call the “ordinary world” part of the story. That’s the first stage in the hero’s journey, and too many writers interpret that to mean showing what a regular day is like. I’ve heard agents and editors talk about reading sample chapters that show the character getting up in the morning, getting dressed, going to work, etc., before the story kicks in. You might be able to get away with that in the movie if that’s what’s playing out during the opening credits while a catchy pop song is playing and if the character on the screen is played by a known and loved actor. In a novel, it’s deadly.
Not that we don’t need any “ordinary world” element. We do need to get a baseline so we can contrast it with how things change once the story kicks off. If it’s science fiction or fantasy, we need to see how that world works and how it’s different from ours. If the world is in danger, we need to see what’s at stake — what will be destroyed if the hero fails? We need to see what the hero is like in his initial surroundings to get a sense of how he’s changed by the events of the story.
The trick is to make this an exciting part of the story rather than just exposition. It helps if your hero has a life that’s already pretty exciting. The opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones gets past all the booby traps into a tomb, outruns a boulder, and then flees angry tribesmen, is actually his ordinary world. It shows his skill set, what kind of work he usually does, and establishes his rivalry with the villain. That way, when we get to the actual inciting incident of him being asked to go get the medallion that can lead them to the Ark, we understand that this guy is up for the job.
Before the kids go to Narnia, they’re already in a strange world when they have to leave home and stay in a mysterious manor because they’re escaping the bombing during the war. That allows us to spend some time exploring the house before stumbling upon the wardrobe — but there would probably be a lot less of that if the book were published today.
Or you can contrast the hero’s ordinary life with a threat he or she doesn’t yet know about, but this only works if you have multiple viewpoints to work with. The Terminator opens with time travelers arriving in the present and a killer cyborg hunting down women named Sarah Connor. Then we watch a woman named Sarah Connor go about her ordinary day. Her ordinary day of going to work as a diner waitress becomes tense and frightening because we know what’s going on elsewhere that might affect her. But we probably wouldn’t be too interested if we spent pages and pages of her ordinary day before she realizes that people with her name are being killed. If it’s all in her perspective, she’d need to learn that really quickly. I think if I were writing that story as a novel entirely from her point of view, my opening line would be a coworker quipping to her about being murdered, and her seeing the report on TV. Then I could go back and show her boring ordinary life, contrasted with that fear of what’s happening to other women with her name, and build a sense of dread.
You don’t necessarily have to open with the ordinary world. You can dive right in with the inciting incident or call to adventure, and then while the hero is balking at that (in hero’s journey terms, “Refusal of the Call”) you can show what the ordinary world is like and why the hero is reluctant to leave that world. Or you can weave in bits of what might happen with the story world into the ordinary world. That’s how I opened my Enchanted, Inc. — the heroine is going about her ordinary day, taking the subway to work, but she sees strange things on the subway that no one else reacts to. She gets to work to find a strange job offer in her e-mail, and then we get scenes of what her normal job is like. I tried to weave in hints of the fantastic while also showing an ordinary life she might want to change.
But none of this does any good if we don’t care about the character, so that’s what I’ll tackle next time.