Sunday, December 27, 2009

Day 4 - How to Start a Novel Badly

I recently picked up a couple of cozy mystery paperbacks that looked promising at my local independent bookstore. I found I couldn't get past the second page on either of them. I found myself growing frustrated and impatient, and that's exactly the opposite of how I expect to feel when I'm reading a cozy mystery.

(Side Rant: I also had negative flashbacks to why I stopped reading new cozies back in the nineties. Screeching, nasty, whiny and disagreeable characters are not interesting. They do not constitute a real threat, just an immediate one. And frankly, when your main character puts up with them for one second, I lose all respect for the protag and there is no reason to continue reading. If you are trying to establish that your protagonist is non-confrontational, then at least make her clever about avoiding these people. Because even if she does have to put up with them, I don't. I can put the book down, and usually I do.)

Ahem. Where was I? While one of these books did have a negative character problem, the other one didn't. And both of them suffered from the same kind of opening. I call it the "set up via dialog" opening, and until this week, I too thought it was a good standard technique for jumping right into the story.

Here's how the better of the two books went (and I'm changing the details to protect the innocent and guilty): A small group of women are idly chatting while doing some activity - like sorting donated clothes for a rummage sale. There is no authorial voice, nor is there any internal voice of any of the characters. So there is no description, nothing to orient us to time and place except what they say and do. And they're too busy telling us about each other and the other characters who will enter later to actually let us in on the fact that this takes place in a church basement, in Cleveland, during World War I. The dialog is generic in terms of time and place, and so busy trying to tell us that one of them is a free spirit and the other is a conventional but loyal friend, and that there is a certain woman who is out to get one or the other of them, that one really, literally, cannot tell that this doesn't take place in present day in some unknown building of some sort.

Now, if the dialog and description had given me a little more sense of time and place, I might not have tossed the book aside as quickly, but I still would have been frustrated. Because there is no tension, and even though the characters were very interested in the upcoming social events in their community, the author had not given me any reason to be interested. The mention of this other woman who competes with one of the protagonists is not enough. She's not in the scene. She doesn't provide any conflict or tension. (And I have to admit, I started to worry that when she does enter, she'll turn out to be screechy or whiny or just too unpleasant to read about.)

Now, this is a published author, so I am going to assume that the problem with this opening isn't that there is nothing at stake. I'll even assume that the little hints of conflict will pay off really well later. Hey, sometimes a good payoff requires a lot of subtle groundwork to be laid.

But right now, I've got a novel which needs some set up for the "ordinary life" aspects. So I'm really interested in what's wrong with that opening, and what other kinds of openings I could write.

So I pulled six books from my shelves and looked at the opening paragraphs of each. (All light mystery and such, and none of them the more experimental artsy style of some classics.) They seem to fall into three categories, which are partly defined by the old "show and tell" rule:

  1. Action scene which is deeply into the direct experience of the protag - which shows us what is at stake, and leaves the reasons for later.
  2. The storyteller's voice, which dives directly into telling us what is important and what it means - reporter style. (But a good reporter will show us too.)
  3. This "intro-by-dialog" technique which keeps an objective voice, and tries to show us by having characters talk - which is a form of telling.

The truth is, all of these techniques will show up throughout a book, the question is, which do you start with? Because later on, the reader is already oriented. But at the beginning, the reader needs a whole world of information. In a lot of ways, the kind of opening page you chose has most to do with which information you give the reader first.

Stay tuned - I'll be writing about each of these three techniques for the next three days. (Here are the direct links to each post in the series: 1.) In the middle of the action, 2.) Narration or storyteller's voice, 3.) Disembodied Dialog. )

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