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Monday, June 14, 2010

Writing a Novel - The Beginning

See First Post of this Series

Originally, this series was designed to follow the journey of my standalone novel The Fire. But after reading Flaming Pen Press's response to The Guardian's Tree novella submission, I decided to set both Redemption's Journey and The Fire aside and take up my newest work of fiction.

The Chains of Hethra.

This novel is definitely better than RJ and will likely be equally as good as TF.

I outlined TCOH, read over the novella version, stewed over some ideas for a while, then hit the road.

The beginning of a book is, for many, the most important part of the entire work. If an author can't hook them in the first few pages the book isn't worth reading to them. So what if it's received critical acclaim? It has a horrid beginning and I'm putting it down.

Personally, I don't agree with this stance. I take a book 100+ pages in before quitting, but overall I think it is important to understand this. Readers will throw your book back on the shelf if you can't write a good beginning.

What things make up a good opening scene?

I often find myself admiring good writing as I read books. My favorites open with such intrigue...that even if the following pages are completely boring, I'm glued to my seat to figure out the opening scene. Maintaining mystery is a highly important aspect of writing in general, I feel, but it is even more important to instill this mystery early on.

It's hard to put a finger on how to write mysterious things. But I'm going to try. Mystery comes through in writing when the characters act in a way you wouldn't expect, do uncommon things, and when the author withholds information from you in a natural manner. I think to sum up, mystery is when the characters know something the reader doesn't.

It is important, though, to not loose your readers in piling up mystery. Mysteriousness is withholding information, not piling it on. You can't throw a million questions into the reader's mind. I find that maintaining a singular question through a scene and dropping clues is a good way to go.

For example, here's part of the opening for the TGT novella:

Screeches ripped through the darkened cavern, followed by the screams of men, and then abrupt silence. Dirt fell from the ceiling hundreds of feet above and shining leaves fell from the Tree, illuminating the forms of the agonized men and women of Hethra. Alvar cradled the sack close to his chest and sprinted through the darkness. His heart pounded and sweat drenched his forehead. He had to get out of here. He had to.

The shrieking creatures flapped their bat-like wings, each brandishing bloodied whips and dripping blades. They flew through the cavern, snatching up men and women and hurling them into fires. The humans cried out for mercy, but the Damans ignored their pleas, lashing their whips, and leaving piles of bodies in their wake.


Alvar sped his pace. The Damans were not after the people.

This begs the question: What is the sack? What are the Damans after if not the people?

Some of the other minor questions are answered throughout the scene, but, if you've read the scene you know, that the whole time you find yourself asking: What is in the sack? Why is it so important? Why are the Damans doing this? etc.

Another good tactic is throwing your reader into chaos. A battle scene, a dark chase, etc. The above quote is a good example of that as well. Chaos adds to the mystery. It also helps in hooking your reader. If you throw a bunch of action in place of a bunch of detail, odds are you'll have your reader in for the long haul.

Keep in mind, however, that you need more than just a bloody fight scene. There needs to be good character play as well. Feel the emotion!

Intriguing Characters

I don't read this type as often simply because I'm not a huge fan of the genre it's typically found in. But I think I know enough to talk about it lol

If you open your scene with dialogue or internal monologue you can present another interesting concept--character. If you're more character driven, dive deep into the head of a character to begin. But when you do, maintain this level of mystery. Think like the character.

For example, I'll open a scene with a young man standing at the grave of his father. All sorts of crazy thoughts are running through his head. Weird thoughts. Odd thoughts. He's not hurt, pained, broken, etc. He's just cold, num. Like the snow falling around him. You dive into this emotionless character and run with it.

But who would have thought that he had murdered his father?

Basically, maintain mystery by not using contrived dumping methods.

Intriguing Places
Fantasy works best with this I think. I read a story once that opened on the field of a previous battle. And as the protag walked through the carnage we examined the castle he was walking through. The building itself hooked me!

All in all, the way to write a good beginning is summed in one word--mystery. People don't want to read a book that just tells them everything. They want to figure things out for themselves! In the same way, people don't want to read books about normal life. "Oh and today I had a sandwich, walked the dog, and did my homework." No one wants to read that! Write differently, write mysteriously.


To the end,


Anonymous said...

First comment!!

Very good post, Nathan!! (This one's going in my 'Writing Tips' folder!!) I can't wait to read your book!


Beorn said...

Good post. I always like hearing it like it is; no fluff to cover up the almost-impossible task of a writer.

Mystery is one of my favorite parts of fantasy books, but it is also one of the harder elements to implement.

Star-Dreamer said...

Wow! That excerpt was exciting! I can't wait to read more now... I will definitely be coming back to look over this post again. Thanks!

Galadriel said...

Very good tips

Jake said...

Great! This helps a lot, as I've been rewriting my own beginning in my novel. :D

I love the excerpt. :)

Jessica said...

Oh this is gooooooood thank you for sharing Nathan! I just recently realized this was the biggest problem with my novel. In the first 10 pages I basically told you the stories entire problem and spent the next 100 pages unraveling it, there was no mysterious question that dragged you along haunting the readers mind, it was frustration WHY CAN'T SHE SEE THAT HE IS....!!!! (no I am not telling what he is is a mystery, or it is trying to be one).
Thank you for the to go back and read my rewrite to make sure I have this all down. :)

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@DOL, glad you liked it! and thanks for adding me to the folder! LOL I hope you get a chance to read it!

@Beorn, almost impossible? Pft. It's just uh.....hard. lol But fun ;) And well worth it.

Definitely. I had to give up SOP writing to get my mystery going ;)

@Star-Dreamer, thank you! The whole scene is posted....somewhere <_<

Thanks Galad!

@Jake, glad I could help! Good luck with your rewrites! I hate writing beginnings LOL

@Jessica, well you want to get the story's problem across quickly. If the whole point of your novel doesn't make itself clear until page should just start on page 50 :P lol. But yeah, dramatic irony can be good and horrible at the same time lol

Good luck!

Thanks for commenting guys!

Celebrilomiel said...

Great post, Nathan! Very helpful and thought-provoking.

Something I find quite ironic is the fact that a lot of the time when I'm writing SOP, I'll have no idea where the plot is going, so I'll be asking myself questions in what I'm writing. Then later, when I've figured out the answers to the questions and begin to write them, I've already written the mystery part.

ColonelShorty said...

Hey Nathan!
Colonel Shorty here,
I love Dragons in our Midst! Thanks for commenting on my page. I love writing as well just don't have the time to always write down all the ideas I think up.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Celeb, Yeah that's what I hear from SOP people all the time. Just doesn't work very well for me lol

@ColonelShorty, hey thanks for stopping by! I'm so sorry that you missed the giveaway! But don't worry, I"ll be hosting a few more in a week or so ;)

ColonelShorty said...

Thanks, and I'll try to make it for the next one.

ColonelShorty said...

Thanks, I'll try to make the next one.

"Stand tall now and proclaim what you have seen, speak in whispered roars..."