Thursday, 14 August 2014

Week Sixteen: Where To Start Your Novel

Some writers make notes or write outlines beforehand; others plunge straight into the story ... but where do they start?

There is nothing so wonderful as beginning to write a new novel. The failures are all ahead of you, only a few preliminary notes and a feeling of excitement - which could be indigestion - are behind you. You've been bottling it up for days, weeks, perhaps even months. Now at last you can write your first few pages ...

But where to start? When Victoria sits down to write her sixteenth blog post? Or a few minutes beforehand, when she gets that life-changing call from her agent? Perhaps you should go further back, start with some cleverly-sketched backstory: maybe that day many decades ago when she stuck her puny ten-year-old fist in the air and vowed to become a bestselling novelist, or when she had that incredible idea for a kickass story while balancing on an inflated gym ball in her exercise class?

The start of your novel is not about set-up and backstory, though it can involve those to some extent. Rather, it is a sacred moment, breathing life into clay you have shaped with your own hands. Your world is born out of nothing; your characters rise up and start making things happen; a predestined chain of events is set in motion, racing toward an unseen finish line. The beginning of every story is that moment when a storyteller invokes the magic territory by saying the four magic words, 'Once upon a time ...'

Heads turn in the room, a hush descends, people settle, and your readers willingly step alongside you into the magical world of The Story.

"Once upon a time ..." Erm ...

None of which helps the novelist in any practical sense, though it may put more pressure on her to get it right. So let's look at more practical methods of deciding where to start.

I am not speaking now to those people who launch into faeryland like The Fool in the old Tarot pack, not looking where they are going but whistling merrily, a pack on their back, stepping out over the abyss as though it were solid ground. Those people are either deeply talented magicians, implicitly trusting the story to keep them from falling, or they are idiots who think planning will stifle their creative spirit. I am talking instead to the rest of us, mortals with a brain, who know storytelling is an art but also know themselves to be capable of whacking great mistakes, so like to venture out with some kind of story map in their pack, from 'X marks the spot' on the back of an envelope to the most up-to-date Sat Nav.

So where to begin?

Most writers know that character shows itself most clearly under pressure. Like the old Latin saying, in vino veritas (truth in wine), a character reveals itself through the choices made when the usual social constraints have fallen away, perhaps because a zombie has come crashing through the living-room window or they've discovered a bomb under the table.

The door opened, and Captain Darkblood stood there, a snub-nosed revolver in his hand pointing right at my heart. "Step away from the typewriter, Victoria. You've written your last adjective."

Equally, the time to begin a story is when your character is under pressure. Not just any pressure, but an inciting pressure, a pressure that forces them to take action. Not pressure that crushes and near-destroys your protagonist, in other words - that comes later, at the climax - but just enough pressure to make your character jump up and start dancing. So Victoria is feverishly typing her blog post when the call comes in: her agent says, 'Now look, Victoria, I don't want you to worry, but apparently there's a bomb under your desk.'

How's that for a hook?

Obviously though, as readers on page one, we can't really care - beyond basic human sympathy - about a character we don't know yet. So Victoria is about to be blown to smithereens. So what? Go ahead and let the bomb detonate. The world could do with one less writer. (More chance for the rest of us, eh?)

So either we need to make the reader care from line one, which is tough to achieve, or we need to show the character just before the pressure situation, to reveal them as sympathetic and someone we ought to care about, someone funny or kind or clever or worth our attention in some way. A child, obviously, gets an instant sympathy vote from most people (except other children!) but in most cases the writer's main protagonist will be an adult. So how to make them sympathetic in a hurry?

Okay, you might say. Let's have Victoria's young curly-headed son pop his head round the door in the first paragraph, and say sweetly, maybe with a tear in his eye, 'Hey, mum, you haven't forgotten we're visiting Grandma in the hospital, have you? I've baked a special cake for her.' To which Victoria will reply, 'No, darling, of course not. I know how important it is for you to visit your dying grandmother who may snuff it at any moment and ... Oh wait, is that the phone?' Cue agent with bomb warning/threat. Now we have Victoria, her young son, and a specially baked cake about to go skyhigh. Plus the dying grandmother will never get to see her family again ...

Seriously though, the real key to making a reader care what happens to your main protagonist is narrative voice.

That's it. Everything else is just scenery, window-dressing.

Narrative voice does not have to be trustworthy or sympathetic in the conventional sense; it can trick us, lie to us, even make our stomachs churn. But it must force us to keep reading.

This initial narrative voice - which can be first, third, even second person - must enter the reader's head from line one and hold them spellbound. So make it a magical voice: intriguing, clever, intimate, confidential, witty, sexy, dangerous, inviting, moreish - right there in the reader's ear. Your narrative viewpoint character on page one is your storyteller, even if this is a prologue and a character who is never seen again. The narrator can change later, especially in a multiple perspective novel, but the first voice or voices encountered are all-important. The narration can be sympathetic or even vile; but we must care what happens next. Because this is the voice that says the magic words, 'Once upon a time ...' and woe betide if they fail to hook the reader.

So to recap, very simply, in answer to the question 'where does my story start?' the answer should be, 'at or preferably just before a moment of inciting pressure, involving a narrator we immediately care about or whose potential failure intrigues us.'

So dump the backstory and start just before the big bang instead. You'd be surprised how little backstory you really need, and how much can be conveyed in a line or two of dialogue, further on, on a strictly need-to-know basis. Make the reader trust your narrator, and they'll come along for the ride without the backstory.

QUESTIONS: which novels have you read that reeled you in from page one, and how did the writer do it? Do you ever have problems knowing where to start your story, and how do you deal with that?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Victoria. You have an unusual ability to start a story as you mean to continue, so many books open in a completely different style to the rest of the narrative. I will keep this post close by as I begin my second attempt to begin book 2. I wrote the opening to book 1 after finishing the ending ! :-)


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