Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Writing Tips - Story Beginnings - Part Two


I’ve written about the importance of a novel’s beginning previously on this blog, and in truth, that importance can’t be overstated. Your novel’s opening words have to draw the reader into the book, give him or her something to care about and something to intrigue, something to entice, a reason to keep holding onto the book and turning the pages.

Unfortunately, too many writers think the only way to draw a reader in is with non-stop action. The concept of “hitting the ground running” has been drummed into writers so often it’s not unusual to find a murder mystery beginning with a death in the first sentence. This isn’t always the best way to draw your reader into the fictional world you’ve created. In fact, “starting with a bang,” so to speak, can actually be disorienting at times.

If you watch potential book buyers in a bookshop, they pick up a book, leaf through it, maybe read a paragraph here and there as well as the cover blurb, then either put the book back on the shelf or buy it. No potential reader expects to fully grasp your story situation with one quick leaf through, and they aren’t searching for the inciting incident. Heck, they probably don’t even know what the words, “inciting incident” mean, though you, as the writer, need to.

What a potential book buyer is looking for is the style of the book, the language, that unique something that makes your writing yours and yours alone. That’s what draws a reader in. Flat, vague writing, no matter how many fireworks go off in its midst, causes a reader to put a book back on the shelf. Language that speaks to the reader, along with vivid imagery, pulls him into the story and won’t let him put the book down.

Margaret Atwood, a master writer, used description to begin my favorite of all her novels, the bestselling Alias Grace. This is how that book begins:

Out of the gravel there are peonies growing. They come up through the loose grey pebbles, their buds testing the air like snails’ eyes, then swelling and opening, huge dark-red flowers all shining and glossy like satin. Then they burst and fall to the ground.

In the one instant before they come apart they are like the peonies in the front garden at Mrs. Kinnear’s that first day, only those were white. Nancy was cutting them. She wore a pale dress with pink rosebuds and a triple-flounced skirt, and a straw bonnet that hid her face. She carried a flat basket, to put the flowers in; she bent from the hips like a lady, holding her waist straight. When she heard us and turned to look, she put her hand up to her throat as if startled.

I tuck my head down while I walk, keeping step with the rest, eyes lowered, silently two by two around the yard, inside the square made by the high stone walls. My hands are clasped in front of me; they’re chapped, the knuckles reddened. I can’t remember a time when they were not like that. The toes of my shoes go in and out under the hem of my skirt, blue and white, blue and white, crunching on the pathway. These shoes fit me better than any I’ve ever had before.

It’s 1851. I’ll be twenty-four years old next birthday. I’ve been shut up in here since the age of sixteen. I’m a model prisoner, and give no trouble.


I love this opening, and when I picked up Alias Grace on a table in my local bookstore, it definitely interested me. I wanted to read more of the book. I wanted to read all it, and I did.

This masterful opening provides the reader with a lot of information, and it raises quite a few questions. For example, who is the narrator? Why on earth has she been in prison for nearly eight years now? And at such a young age? She certainly doesn’t seem like the criminal type. She’s obviously very intelligent and observant. She describes the peonies in near-poetic terms.

Who is Mrs. Kinnear? Who is Nancy? Did they play any part in the crime allegedly committed by our narrator? Could our narrator be dreaming? Could she be mad? Could she be shut up in a mental hospital rather than in a prison? Is this opening part of a story-within-a-story? To find out, a reader is going to have to read on.

But it isn’t just the “need to know” that caused me to purchase and read Alias Grace, though that was part of it. I loved Atwood’s tone in her opening paragraphs. I loved the quiet way Atwood imparted so much information and raised so many questions. (I’m not generally a fan of literary fireworks.) I love the narrator’s ability to observe and describe the flowering of peony bushes in poetic terms, even comparing them to snails’ eyes. I could tell from the description of the clothing, even before our narrator provided us with the year, that the story was going to take place in the 19th century, another factor that interested me. I was able to “get lost” in the beautiful flow of this book immediately, in the first paragraph, really. And that’s what readers want to do. They want to get lost in good book, and it’s your job to make it easy for them to do so.

If you have a novel beginning you’re working on now, take a look at it. Does it raise questions in the mind of the reader that he or she will definitely want answered? Does it impart information that causes the reader to become curious about your narrative and your characters? Does it pull the reader into the world you’ve created? Alias Grace definitely pulls the reader into the mid-19th century. However, if Atwood had been writing a science fiction novel, this beginning wouldn’t have worked so well. You can’t entice your reader with one thing, then switch horses in mid-stream and hope to keep that same reader interested. As I stated above, I love 19th century literature and most literature that takes place during the 19th century. However, I’m not nearly as keen on science fiction no matter when or where it takes place. I would have been very disappointed had Alias Grace turned out to be science fiction in the next chapter.

A lot of writing instructors will tell you to begin each chapter, and especially your beginning with action or dialogue. Sometimes this works, but other times, most of the time, I think, the reader needs to be oriented first. He or she needs to be introduced to the time period in which you’re writing, to the main character, or someone who will interact with the main character, and most of all, to the style of writing you intend to employ throughout the book. The beginning of Alias Grace does all these things and more.

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