Sunday, February 11, 2007

Some talk on beginnings...

I gave a workshop on Saturday at the Toronto Romance Writers on Great Beginnings. And I thought I would sort of hit the highlights of that workshop in this blog and then I promise to have more comprehensive notes on my website sometime before Mick goes to college.

First, I think and have always thought and probably will always think that the beginning of the novel is the hardest part of the novel writing process. There is so much resting on those first few pages. Not only do you have to introduce theme and character and plot and goals and motivations and be funny or scary or suspenseful or clever, but you also have to do all those things so that the reader can't tell you're doing it-- very difficult.

I have been a reader far longer than I have been a writer and if there is one thing I've learned as a READER it's that the best storytelling happens outside of expectation - when I can't see it coming. And I think RWA and all helpful rules and guidelines we pick up at the numerous workshops conferences and on line courses CREATE expectation. If we are all following "the rules" we're all writing the same book!

I think we need to step back from those small nit picky guidelines and rules that we've been taught and remember that good storytelling is about engaging the reader with questions. Books become page turners because the reader is dying to know the answers to questions that the writer controls and manipulates. It's really very simple - at the beginning of our books we want our readers to be asking PLOT questions - what is going to happen next? and CHARACTER questions - who are these people? and BACKSTORY questions why are they behaving this way?

The more specific the questions and the more immediate the question the better. Will she get the promotion? Will he get out alive? Will he speak up for himself? Will she leave her husband? Will she kill her husband? Will she make out with the cute guy at the bar? Will she get out of bed?

The goal is to make every question -- even the silly or frivolous fraught with tension and stakes. Remember the great Jenny Cruise book when the heroine is on the phone with her friend and trying to get that frozen brownie out of the pan -- it's a life or death battle for that brownie. If you are showing your character late for work and she's NEVER late for work and she's an aggressive woman with control issues - that morning commute has to be akin to the Battle of Hastings.

All too often books start with conversations - where in one character tells the other character what they already know for the readers benefit - but it's all about all the things going wrong and what's happened since Dad died/they lost their job/they got divorced/their husband cheated on them etc... there's no tension there. There's information - but I'm not asking questions because the writer is answering them before I can ask them. In two words - no conflict.

Now - some of those rules we've all been told - don't show ordinary world, start with a hook, the hero and heroine must meet in the first chapter, show don't tell, start with action and dialogue. And even more the list I have created for myself over the years of things I don't want to do in my books - you know, bob dialogue, repetition of theme, conflict and goal, lazy writing, misleading my reader - those rules become TOOLS for creating those reader questions and conflict.

I think one of the problems I have with a lot of romances these days is that many writers are lazy on the small scenes - the scenes that lead us to love scenes or black moments, or moments of change or groveling or happy ever after - and the key is to make those scenes as important as those big scenes by, again controlling reader questions. If every scene has to be important and a scene that the reader is DYING to read whether they know it or not - it is doubly true for that opening scene.

So look at those rules you've been told and figure out which of them are tools you can use to jumpstart your opener - to get those reader's hooked and asking questions. Because that's what good storytelling does and that's what we're trying to do - tell great stories.

6 comments:

Christine said...

I wish I had been able to attend your session Molly. This is a great post and I agree. As a reader I give a book about three pages before they lose me.

Sinead M said...

Molly, great post. You're so right about the specifics. We've been taught to open our books with a bang, or a dead body, but really what we need are compelling questions, and mysteries and a character who cares about the answers.
I love the example of the woman trying to get a brownie out of the pan.
I really enjoy the peek into the ordinary world of the character, if at the same time, the writer is setting up questions...

Maureen McGowan said...

Yes, setting up questions....

And conflict. Even if it's an ordinary world opening, before the events that throw the protagonist into the fray, those scenes showing the ordinary world should be full off conflict and tension. Otherwise it's just boring information about the characters and the reader doesn't have much reason not to put the book down.

I think this has been a lightbulb moment for me over the past several months. (Slow lightbulb) But you two know how much I've agonized over the opening of my current project...

Molly O'Keefe said...

Yes -- the flickering lightbulb moment -- I know it well....

I'm reading an historical right now and the beginning was so slow that I really came close to putting it down but I knew something was coming (thanks to an amazing third person POV of the bad guy -- so bad) and then suddenly -- the book takes off like gangbusters... and I'm wondering what's the deal - the woman can right she can create tension and conflict but she just wasn't doing it at the beginning. It's like this second act I'm into is written by someone else...

Amy Ruttan said...

Your talk was great Molly. As a panster I have no real plan or rationale to my WIPS. When you started talking about questions I thought of so many questions for my current WIP and I now keep a list of them by my computer to make sure I can incorporate them into the piece. Even if I don't have a set plan at least the questions help me surmount obstacles and blocks I usually face.

I haven't seen the Guardian with KC either, I hope after his death scene he doesn't come back six months later with some crazy kind of Lost survival thing. ;)

Wylie Kinson said...

Here's a bit of irony for you: if it's an author I've read before and like, I'm extremely patient with slow beginnings, but if I pick up a book by a new author and he/she doesn't grab me in the first chapter, I put it down.
As a newbie, I'm going to have to remember that! :)

Really enjoyed your talk last Sat, Molly. I don't often take notes at these things because I'm so intent on just paying attention, but you inspired so many brain bulbs in my head, I started jotting things down like a mad-woman!!

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