Discussion: On Starting a Novel
with Karlos Allen, Carmen Ruggero, and Don Webb
In response to Kevin Ahearn’s letter On Starting a Novel, in issue 242:
Kevin is right. If you don’t have your audience in the first paragraph, you will probably never have them at all. The one thing every author (or artist or performer) MUST remember is that the audience always, always, always has the right to ask “So what?” If you can’t answer that question to their satisfaction, then you can not expect them to stick around for the rest of the story (or picture, or movie, play, et cetera). The audience is doing us a favor when they read our stories. We are not doing them a favor by writing them.
I agree with Kevin that the opening paragraph of anything — novel, short story — anything, is important. It should be strong enough to hook the reader. But I do disagree with Kevin’s analogy.
The opening should be a strong hook, that’s true. But it does not mean the hero/heroine, or antihero, for that matter, needs to be someone we would admire or even like. Hence, “meet me for coffee and run away with me” is not a good example of someone being hooked for the next 275 pages.
For example, Dr. Hannibal, in The Silence of the Lambs — I couldn’t imagine having coffee with him, much less have him for a friend. Yet, that novel held my attention for the duration, regardless of my dislike for Dr. Hannibal.
If we’re writing a mystery (my favorite), we might first represent the hero in less than a favorable light, for the sake of suspense. But then that initial deceit, (the hook) needs to be carefully developed to keep us reading. I have put down best sellers because I couldn’t get past the first page.
In other words, the first paragraph or the first fifteen minutes is good enough for a hook. But what it takes to write a successful novel, is to maintain that quality for 75,000 to 100,000 words. All the way to THE END.
Granted, first impressions are important. I admit that I’ve never been able to read Tolkien. I tried, I really did. But after three pages of continously rewriting his turgid prose in my head, I realized I’d create a very readable translation — in a century or two. And I gave up.
Still, I have to wonder: what is a “first” impression? If the first paragraph of a work is so all-fired important, how about the first sentence? Or — to take it to the absurd — the first word?
Take a look at a closed genre, the Gospels. Consider the opening of each in turn. You can hardly find better models of clarity and practicality. Each author immediately addresses the questions uppermost in his audience’s mind, and each author addresses a different audience.
Now let’s go from pillar to post. If you want pop culture, who would want to sit through anything that begins:
Alarm goes off at seven
And you start uptown.
You put in your eight hours
For the powers that have always been.
Till it's five P.M.
Then You go
Where the folks are broke.
Where your life's a joke.
When you buy your token,
Home to skid row.
Yep, that’s the opening to the classic musical Little Shop of Horrors. The title itself is the “hook,” as Carmen calls it, and as you can see, it has to carry a lot of weight.
Or let’s take a real blockbuster: who on earth would ever continue reading a 1.5-million word novel that began:
“For a long time I went to bed early”
Especially when it continues:
“Sometimes my candle had hardly gone out when my eyes closed so quickly that I had no time to say to myself, ‘I’m going to sleep’.”
The point: if first impressions are all we go by, what are we missing? We have to rely on others to tell us what opportunities we’ve passed up — or we never know.
Perhaps Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu — whose opening I’ve just quoted — is the literary monument of an age less hurried and more reflective than ours. More’s the pity.