1. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Weak ways to start a novel

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by jwatson, Sep 18, 2009.

    By weak I mean an agent will frown upon it or a reader will not be "hooked."

    What I'm thinking is re-writing the beginning where I have my main character speaking at his father's funeral. The main character will then say his speech on what he learned from his father. The speech is hopefully going to be a few paragraphs long and touching. Is this a weak way to begin?

    On this topic, what are the best ways to begin a novel or any form of writing for that matter ?

    What are the worst?
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    This is another one of those discussions that has happened a thousand times on this forum, and the result is always the same. There is no given formula for a strong (or weak) opening - the only thing good openings have in common is good writing.
     
  3. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hmm, Have you kept in mind that the readers have no idea who any of the characters are, and therefore they will most likely not be affected by an otherwise moving speech?

    They have nothing invested in the character who speaks or the one who died. If a movie started at a funeral, I'd try my best to be patient for the story to begin. I'm not saying it can't work, but I don't think it would be an ideal catch.

    I once heard an advice on this that stuck with me. It went something along the lines of:

    Kick off with a paradox.

    A quick sentence that throws the reader off their feet because it doesn't quite make sense, yet it's intriguing enough for the reader to want to know what it means and leads to. Curiosity is one of the emotions that triggers the quickest.
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    arron, not quite true. Agreed, there is no formula for a good beginning, but there are certainly formulas that practically guarantee failure.

    For instance, you can start by telling the history of the region, or the character, to get the reader familiar with the background information they will need before thay can fully comprehend the first ten chapters. (the Infodump)

    Or you can begin with six pages of uninterrupted dialogue, to give the reader a feel for the characters. (talking heads)

    And hey, let's open with a scene that introduces all sixteen principal characters, so the reader knows them all from the start. (The reader won't be able to keep them all straight. Introduce only one or two characters at a time.)
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This.

    Also, take a look through your favorite books. You'll find that there are many different ways to open a novel and keep the reader's interest.
     
  6. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    Avoid openings like this (by Garrison Spik, 2008 winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest :D):

    "Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city, their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped 'Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.' "

    --

    But seriously, clever openings might interest me for the first page, but great writing including a distinctive, interesting character will hold my interest.
     
  7. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    I'm going to ask a stupid question, so please bear with me. The above was an example of what not to do, right (was it intended to be sarcastic) ? Unless done in a dazzling way...

    What I quoted, Cogito, is precisely what I predict will happen tomorrow when I write it. I'm focusing on one character throughout. Is this a bad idea? Of course, more will say it depends on how it is written, which is true.

    By the way, you probably answered this in your first point, but I just found it unclear, sorry, I know, dumb question.
     
  8. Colonel Marksman
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    Colonel Marksman Member

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    The story must start from the beginning. It sounds simple, but somehow it gets extremely complicated and confused.

    The core of the story is the character. The core of the character is the care. A care is also worded as "conflict", "passion", or whatever. Doesn't matter what it is, only that the character cares for it. This ranges from other characters (like in romance), inanimate objects, ideals/beliefs/religions, a goal, or trait of the character (a weakness, a strength, or power, like in superhero stories).

    So why am I mentioning characters? Because the story starts when the care is threatened. It's the baseline of any story. Anything else isn't a story. From what I'm reading in your post, you don't have a story here, just a speech about a dead man. Why should I care?


    This means refraining from long explanations or, in this case, speeches. There's no drive to read on, nothing really stimulating. Even starting with the word "the" can tell an agent or publisher something. Beginnings are obviously important, as when people browse through the bookstore, they usually read the first few paragraphs and then determine whether or not they like it.

    It's the biggest problem I have with some books on the shelves and armatures writing stories online. It's also the why movies do it so easily. They can make beginnings fairly dramatic, epic, or thrilling from the get-go despite the content.


    A speech is also a means of "telling", not "showing". We have a character talking to an audience (and the reader) about something. There's no action going on, such as character interaction or connection. You'd have to make that speech extremely touching and interact with the audience.

    But that's a problem. Now we're talking about the loss of a care that is no longer present, which worsens the stimulation (it explains why revenge is such a poor basis for a story). I promise you, no good writing can make a beginning like that thrilling in the slightest. I've seen stories with poor grammar, spelling, and inconsiderate flaws towards the English language that are better than what Mary Higgins Clark or Clive Cussler wrote.


    Exactly what is this story about? I don't need details, just an overview. Maybe we can discover what your'e trying to get through.
     
  9. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    How is opening with 'The' a bad thing? That seems like exactly one of the things an amateur would do thinking it makes them sound better, but really is just ridiculous. I also think the way you explain conflict is a little too obvious and excludes many possiblities of narrative constructions, although the idea that conflict in itself is the backbone of fiction is more or less right. And your last paragraph just confuses me. Revenge is one of the archetypal conflicts that stories are based on....the idea that it is a poor basis is pure misinformation. Just because someone has died, doesn't mean the "care", as you insist on calling it, is absent. In fact, itimmediately implies the exact opposite - that you are not meant to care deeply about the dead person, but about someone/something else that is being introduced in the scene. Really, the way you use the (invented) term 'care' is very confusing...you may want to consider rephrasing it more clearly...'care' certainly can't be used synonymously with 'conflict' as you use it in your last paragraph...
     
  10. Colonel Marksman
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    Colonel Marksman Member

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    I'll flip the table here. You've got one large paragraph with broken up points in it. But beside the point.


    If you read my post again, you'll find that I didn't say the starting the story with the word, "The" was bad.

    Imagine if you yourself were an agent. You read over a thousand stories a year, at least the start of them. Trust me, when they see the word "Wind", "Help!" "Kill", or what-not, it pops out immediately, because the general consensus of the population starts stories with the word "The", and it's ok. Doesn't hurt to be a bit different. Just something to think about really.


    What I'm saying about the idea of revenge being a poor care, it's also a poor conflict. Revenge is based upon the absence of a care. A dictator kills a man's wife. A bully burns a kid's English homework. Once that passes, the story is killed almost immediately. At least, revenge isn't for the beginner.

    Revenge can lead to other cares and further develop stories, but when the main focus is prized on simply getting back at someone, not only is it cliché, it's overused, overdone, hard to work with, and gives no life or essence to the character.

    The story begins when the care is threatened. When the care is destroyed, all that passion that is used for us to identify with the character (and create humor, tragedy, happiness, etc.) is all gone.
     
  11. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I still don't understand your usage of care. If care means "the motive of the protagonist", then revenge is, as I said, one of the archetypal "cares". Its the basis of too many stories to count, its as essential as guy-meets-girl or good-vs-evil. Revenge isn't the basis for other stories, its a story in itself, and there's no reason it implies a weak character, or that it would be hard to work with.

    You change the meaning of "care" in your last paragraph, so I'm not sure what you mean...I'm assuming its something like "what the protagonist cares about" this time, in which case, while that is the basis of the conflict, its not necessarily the start of the story. The last sentence I couldn't make sense out of at all.
     
  12. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    An info dump would be a bad way that is commonly attempted by writers. There are so many poor ways to start that to describe them all would be difficult.

    The best way to begin a novel would be with something that interests the reader to keep on reading. What works depends a lot on the audience. I know, very general, but there isn't a 'best way' that will work for all situations and for all writers.

    As far as starting with a speech at a funeral that will be touching---maybe it'll work, but as a writer, you have to remember, the character means something to you. You know him and understand the character. The reader, just picked up the book and doesn't know anything. No frame of reference. And while there may be some empathy--anyone who has been to a funeral could understand what is going on and the possible sadness or grief, it won't have the same impact if a connection between reader and the character in question hasn't first been made.

    The speech in the first two paragrapsh could do many things to set the stage for the story, but working for it to be touching might be difficult to accomplish.

    Could it work? Depending on the context, yes. But I would guess more likely it would not based on the reasoning above.

    Just my two cents.

    Terry
     
  13. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    Personally I wouldn't start a story with a eulogy. In order for a eulogy to be powerful or moving you need to know the person.
     
  14. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    Lots of people gave great advice on how to start a novel in this thread. {You'll find my contribution on page 2. :p}
     
  15. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    Starting with a eulogy is a fair way to introduce characters and give a good impression of the main character- but start a bit early. Remember, he's going to give a public speech. This is a universal fear, usually greater than death. Have him worry about it, fumble with the notes in his pocket, whisper to someone, desperately try to suddenly discover that he has a serious health problem and thus won't have to go ahead with it.

    Starting the novel with a character, who has a problem, and is confronting it- it's the strongest way to start.

    Weak ways to start, that I've actually seen, include:

    Starting with a random, no-names-given action sequence where the heroes win.

    Starting with a prologue that happens a vast amount of time before the events of the novel, then cutting to a prophecy, then cutting to the main character, who instantly is revealed as fitting the prophecy.

    Starting with the main character getting to work late, getting an assignment from his boss and then jumping out the window to get to the assignment on time. This sounds good, but it was written in a careful, stately, slow-moving, state-the-facts style with no internal monologue from the main character and no description of the obviously wierd buildings that surrounded him.

    Basically, make sure that the opening fits your writing style, regardless of what actually happens.
     
  16. Colonel Marksman
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    Colonel Marksman Member

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    B-Gas hit a good one. Fear of the stage, or making a public speech. It's great insight into the character, but he also pointed out a few things surrounding the care of the character. Example, a pointless action scene where the hero is introduced. A character late for work, but with no emphasis on anything.

    A care isn't necessarily a motive. It's anything the character strongly cares for (not necessarily a passion). Revenge, as I've said, is the absence of a care, a "lack thereof".


    Anyway, the care is what makes characters interesting, what allows us to identify with them, and that can create humor, thrill, happiness, or tragedy, and it also produces the means for the art of the page-turner. The care is threatened, and so the story's build up must conclude on his failure or accomplishment surrounding that care. I'm saying different authors in the past have used different terms for "care" such as passion or conflict. But it's all part of the basics that other authors point to, often without knowing it.


    So, to figure out what a good beginning might be (instead of eliminating all the bad ones, because like TWErvin2 said, there's a lot of them) it would be good if we could get an overview of your story.
     
  17. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    carthonn hit the nail squarely on the head!

    i'd drop any book that started that way like a hot rock... think about it... if we have no clue about who/what the eulogizer and the eulogee are, we're not going to give a flying fleep about the one dying and the other mourning his loss, are we?... all it will amount to then, is a lengthy infodump... and it won't be 'moving' other than to move the reader to give up and find a book with a more enticing opener...

    to hook us, you need to start with some action, or a compelling scene that introduces one of those characters, not just a long monologue...
     
  18. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I guess my opinion is different than lot of the people here, but I don't see a problem with starting with a eulogy. It gives readers an insight into the characters at the funeral. Take a look at The Stranger by Albert Camus. He starts his work by stating that the MC's mother had died. The MC then makes preparations for the funeral. The focus here isn't really on the mother but rather on the MC. In the same manner, if you do start with at a funeral, try to let your readers know about the behavior and personalities of the people in attendance rather than the deceased. Just an idea.
     
  19. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I don't think (from what the OP wrote) that the opening to L'Etranger is really comparable to what they're going for...sounds like this poster was gonna do the whole emotional lengthy eulogy, which would inevitably focus on the character being discussed, while the way Camus treats the death at the beginning of his novel focusses solely on the character and his personality. Then again, I guess if he can make it work, you can too, but I'm still not convinced that a lengthy eulogy at the beginning of your book is gonna entice readers...
     
  20. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I still think the OP can make it work. For example, the son could make the eulogy and say nice things about the father but then say bad things about him to someone in private. It could give us a feel for the father-son relationship, and the OP could use that to tell us more about the character of the son.

    arron, have you read L'Etranger in French? Most people refer to it by it's English title, so I was just wondering. I read it in English a while back and now plan to read it in French.
     
  21. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    With L'Etranger, the reader is immediately interested because the son is so nonchalant about his mother's death.

    The OP's asking about opening with a eulogy...being read, I imagine. Your proposal that after the eulogy he does something like disses his dead father could be interesting, but at first--which is the concern of the OP--all we're reading is a eulogy without us having any context or connection to anyone. Bad idea, in my opinion.
     
  22. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    I think one of the best ways to start a novel is with a scene that has conflict/tension while introducing us to the MC's daily life.

    It could be as simple as her trying to get her little brother out of the bathroom because she is running late for school.
     
  23. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Alright, taking everything you guys have said into consideration, I've decided against it.

    The over-all circumstances also seem foolish. The fact that the reader wont care about the death of the father is a good point. I considered having the mc visiting his father's grave, but I guess that too would be a bad idea, seeing as it still revolves upon the grief the character is feeling.

    Now, on a less vague note, I've decided to actually tell you what the plan is (or was):
    Pretty much, the father is dead. The mc's wife/girlfriend is extremely ill. The mc has taken leave from the army and one of his longtime friends, who is a magician, (yes, fiction) is going to try and slow the disease spreading inside my mc's wife. That is the beginning of the chapter. This second part is not particularly hard for me to write, but the beginning is. Before reading this, I was considering the eulogy or the grave visit. Is the latter just as bad?
     
  24. Dean_Mehrkens
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    Dean_Mehrkens Banned

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    I may be a bit late to the party, but I say the only right way to start a story is to give your readers something to care about. If they don't care, they won't read. If they care, they'll read, rant and rave, and tell all their friends. So make them care.
     
  25. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    If I were to do something like this I would end the first chapter with the first line of the eulogy. Then I would have the last chapter be the eulogy.

    Also, I would write my entire story before I would write the eulogy and insert it in.
     

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