Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Beginning of Your Novel: Six Must-Have Elements

The beginning of your novel is your calling card, the way to make a good first impression whether on an agent or a reader. With the proliferation of e-readers, it’s common for people to “test-drive” a book, now that the first 35 or so pages of many novels are available for free. With a great beginning you’re likely to make that sale or get that full request from an agent. So be sure to grab your reader from page one.

Here are six elements that you’ll need to make the beginning of your novel shine:

1. Profluence: A fancy word coined by John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction,” which means to move forward. A reader needs to feel a forward momentum, an emotional urgency and the feeling of “getting somewhere” in order to compel her to keep reading.

2. Chapter One—Not a Prologue: This might be controversial advice, but in my private manuscript consulting business 95 percent of the prologues I see are either irrelevant, can be included in the first chapter or even turned into the first chapter. Agents often see prologues as a red flag and a cheap shortcut. Avoid them if at all possible.

3. A Riveting Scene: So often writers feel they need to set the scene and give the reader lots of background information. They might even start with the protagonist going about his day, checking email, drinking coffee, cleaning the litter box—in other words starting with something boring and mundane. Don’t hesitate to start with a riveting, relevant scene that has little backstory. You can weave necessary details in later.

4. A Strong Voice: This sometimes can take the place of a riveting scene at the start of a book that offers up a more “ordinary” premise. Voice refers to the words you choose (diction), how you arrange and group the words (syntax), the order in how you present events (structure) and the attitude toward the characters, subject and events of the book (tone). It’s the soul of your story and the unique way that only you can tell it.

5. A Flawed Protagonist: Happy heroes and heroines with no problems, perfect lives and no obstacles to overcome quickly become boring. As Anne Lamott says in bird by bird: “You are going to love some of your characters because they are you or some facet of you, and you are going to hate some of your characters for the same reason. But no matter what, you are probably going to have to let bad things happen to some of the characters you love or you won’t have much of a story.”

6. A Beginning that’s not at the Beginning: Often the best place to start a novel is not at the point where the actual story begins. If your first chapter lacks punch, experiment with starting the book in a different place. Often you won’t know the best place to begin your novel until you’ve completed the whole thing.

Wendy Tokunaga is the author of two novels, Midori by Moonlight (2007) and Love in Translation (2009), both published by St. Martin’s Press, and the forthcoming non-fiction e-book, Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband. She is also the author of the award-winning self-published novel, No Kidding (2000). She has published two non-fiction children’s books with KidHaven Press and her short stories have appeared in various literary journals. She holds a BA in Psychology from San Francisco State University and an MFA in Writing from University of San Francisco (2008). She teaches novel writing at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and has her own private manuscript consulting business.

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  1. Wendy is a great teacher and writing mentor. I've been struggling with a prologue and am now convinced I should just change it to chapter 1. I especially like tip #5!

  2. Wendy, I read as a student today, testing my new manuscript against your advice--which is excellent! Now I feel ready to go to work! Thanks!

  3. This is fantastic advice, Wendy. Thanks for sharing . . . now I need to hustle up to my office and put it to good use!

  4. This is wonderful, Wendy, and well worth sharing...which I'm going to do right now.

  5. Thanks for sharing, Wendy! Solid advice. While I do love a good prologue, you're right, it's better to craft that info into the novel.

  6. Excellent advice! I do feel the first chapter is the hardest to write and the most important to get right. I usually re-write it during the revision phase at least a couple of times.

  7. Thanks, everyone! Yes, the first chapter is definitely the hardest to write!

  8. Great advice, Wendy.

  9. Great post, Wendy! Thanks for sharing!

  10. Love this post, Wendy. Always so great to get helpful tips on craft.