QUIZ: How should you start your novel?

First, a Pop Quiz

I’m going to give you four openings of books, and you tell me how they hook the reader. Why does the reader keep reading?

1. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

2. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack.

3.  When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

4. When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special significance, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Here are the sources for the openings:

  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  2. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
  3. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Here are my answers of what might be going through a reader’s mind as s/he reads the openings:

  1. That’s an intriguing idea. I wonder what more the author has to say or show about it. (Answers)
  2. I want to know more about this guy; he seems interesting. (Character)
  3. Immediate: What’s the Reaping? By the end of the chapter: What happens next? (Answers, Time)
  4. Who’s Bilbo? Where’s Bag End? Eleventy-first birthday? A Party? Hobbiton? (World)

Earlier this week I posted about WATCH, a method of figuring out which of four elements your novel focuses on. Each novel has all four, but novels generally stress one over the others. When you know which element is your focus, you have a good idea of how to start and end your novel, giving it continuity. The four elements are World, Answers (or theme), Time (or events), and Character. Read about them on the previous post.

Tricky Beginnings and Endings

Beginning and ending your book with your focus element is a helpful tip. It isn’t a rule. To Kill A Mockingbird begins with a statement about Jem, Scout’s brother, then talks about events leading up to his injury, and then the book ends on theme.

Tuck Everlasting begins with a mystery and ends with a theme, but the epilogue ends with more events. All together, the story is a Time story—readers want to know what happens next.

The Outsiders starts by talking about the narrator and ends with him wanting to tell the world about his friends. The book’s themes and plot and world are important, but the story begins and ends with character.

A Study in Scarlet is a mystery, but the first chapter is about Dr. Watson introducing himself and then being told about Sherlock Holmes. But even the character of Holmes is its own mystery, which is why the reader doesn’t want to know how the characters grow so much as answer the question of who they are.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation begins with an “excerpt” from the Encyclopedia Galactica. It’s not difficult to guess that World is definitely a focus in his books.

A Note Regarding Prologues

Agents want to read and represent a book that hooks them from the first paragraph. That’s why plenty of agents despise prologues. But wait, you say, plenty of fantasy and sci-fi books start with prologues. If World is your focus, you’re more likely to get away with a prologue. If the focus is Character or Answers, then you likely should not have a prologue—backstory and answers should be revealed throughout the book. Don’t give your milk away for free if you’re trying to sell a cow.

If you are debating about including a prologue, first consider the following:

  • Is there any other way you can effectively incorporate this information without putting it at the beginning?
  • Is it really that necessary?
  • Do you care that many readers will skip over it?
  • Do you care that it might annoy potential agents or publishers?

If you absolutely must include a prologue, I suggest titling it Chapter One rather than Prologue. Include a date or time stamp there and on Chapter 2 to show a shift in time or place.

YOUR Beginning: Another Quiz!

When writing or revising your beginning, ask yourself what is important to you as a writer and as a reader.

Answer each question yes/no. Then rank your “Yes” answers in order of what matters most to you.

  1. Do you want to be thought of as poignant or thought-provoking?
  2. Do you want to be known as exciting?
  3. Do you want to be known for your imagination?
  4. Do you want to be known as an intimate person?
  5. Do you read books to escape?
  6. Do you put down a book if it’s boring?
  7. Do you enjoy books that make you think?
  8. Do you tend to forget about the plot in books you’ve read, but always remember the people?
  9. Do you want people to fall in love with your characters?
  10. Do you want people to enjoy your fictional universe as much as (or more than) you do?
  11. Do you want your book to be memorable for its themes?
  12. Do you want your book to be a page-turner?

What matters most from questions 1–4: ___ (1-A, 2-B, 3-D, 4-C)

What matters most from questions 5–8: ___ (5-D, 6-B, 7-C, 4-A)

What matters most from questions 9–12: ___ (9-C, 10-D, 11-A, 12-B)

If you answered mostly A’s (Answers)—Start your book with a theme and end it with the final statement on the theme. For the rest of the novel, be sure to illustrate (show) rather than explain (tell) so you don’t get preachy. These are the books that, when thematic and done right, change people’s lives and become their most beloved books. When structured as mysteries or capers, these are the most open to becoming series.

If you answered mostly B’s (Time)—Start your book immediately with the inciting incident, and end each chapter with a change of events. Finish the book with a final change of events (which might be a cliff-hanger if this is part of a series). These books are the ones that people can’t put down and recommend to their friends because it’s such a thrilling read.

If you answered mostly C’s (Characters)—Start and end your book with interesting details about the character. Voice is everything. So is making the character sympathetic by using rooting interests. These are the books that people fall in love with, that generate the most fan fiction.

If you answered mostly D’s (World)—Fascinate them with the world you create. Start with a regular day, if it’s really amazing. Otherwise begin with the most interesting places or event in your world, and end once the world finds a new normal. These are the books that people immerse themselves in—the ones that generate the most cosplays and fan art. They have a very high potential for spin-offs. (They are also the ones that have the highest costuming and CGI budgets when transferred to film!)

Choosing the best kind of beginning for your book

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