Thanks for all the comments on yesterday’s post. Those of you who read this blog, don’t neglect the comments!
On the other hand, you have to grip your reader early and fast, making them so interested in your story or characters that they will keep reading. If you don’t start your novel with the main story line and add a ’smaller’ problem that leads to the ‘bigger’ problem later on, how do you grip your reader then?
Is it a case of switching priorities in your protagonist? First he thinks this smaller problem is what deserves his attention, then the bigger problem?
I’m asking this because this is usually the hardest thing in starting a novel (at least for me). How do you take the story that’s in your mind and that’s interesting to you, and turn it into something that’s interesting for your potential readers?
In the case of Lord of the Rings for example, Bilbo desperately wants to go traveling again. But then, he’s not the main character. Frodo just wants to have a normal (boring) life, which makes him an average uninteresting character, not a protagonist. His real transformation into a protagonist comes later. How do we know when is the right time for this switch? How do we know it’s not too late or too early?
Randy sez: Lots of good questions here. I recommend this strategy:
1) Start in the first scene with the protagonist. Show him/her pursuing some rather ordinary goal (or avoiding some rather ordinary problem). There will naturally be conflict and then a disaster. (This is the usual structure for a Scene, using Dwight Swain’s terminology of Scenes and Sequels. For a recap, see my article on Writing the Perfect Scene.
2) As soon as possible, escalate the conflict. This may happen at the end of the first chapter, or it may come in the Sequel that follows, but raise the stakes and shift the goal.
3) Repeat as needed until you’ve transitioned from an ordinary goal to a large goal that can drive the novel forward.
As for Christophe’s question about knowing when to do this, I would say to do it as soon as possible, but no sooner.
There is another strategy for starting a novel with a bang, by starting a bit into the story, then backtracking. THE DAY OF THE JACKAL starts this way, with the execution of French Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry. This takes half a page, after which the reader willingly submits to 14 pages of backstory on why the Lieutenant Colonel was executed (he had been part of a plot to assassinate Charles DeGaulle), and then the story continues with the aftermath of the execution.
In this example, the backstory was very recent, and could have served as the opening of the novel. The reason Frederick Forsyth started with the execution is that an execution is a more exciting start than a failed assassination attempt. There is something macabre about an execution that grabs the reader and won’t let go. (Readers of suspense novels understand this. Readers of sweet romances might not.)
The goal of your starting scene is to grab the reader’s attention. Whatever works is whatever works.