Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Big Bang: Writing Memorable Novel Beginnings

One of the most intimidating aspects of writing a novel-length project is getting the first scene exactly right. Potential readers will likely judge your novel (quite literally) by its cover, or maybe skim the inside flap.

Supposing that the cover art and teaser material have sufficiently intrigued your prospective audience, the reader might then open the book to read a page or two. Personally, I've spotted an attractive book cover, read the inside flap, and then not purchased a book because I couldn't stand the overall writing style of the first few chapters.

How can you avoid losing readers? The short answer is: you can't. Not all of them, anyway. Some readers won't even peruse the aisle where your book is shelved. If you've written sci-fi, there are bound to be dedicated historical romance readers who wouldn't even consider checking the back cover of a sci-fi novel.

However, for that niche market to whom your novel could appeal, it's important to get the first sentence, paragraph, and page just right.

There are a few ways to do this. You can:
1. Entice a reader with action,
2. Entertain with humor,
3. Stun with suspense,
4. Haunt a reader with horror, or
5. Dazzle with description.

No matter what you choose, it all boils down to the same premise: be original. Have a compelling hook, a reason for your reader to keep turning the pages until they decide they just have to buy it.

I'll use my current novel project "Paradise Found" to provide examples, and then give a writing prompt that you can use:

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 1 = Action
Detective Carrigan failed to duck quickly enough, and the thug's anvil-sized hand careened, unforgiving, into the back of the Chicago cop's skull. Motes of black jolted across his vision, and Carrigan knew that if he didn't start winning this fight, it could be his last.

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 2 = Humor
He wasn't even on the clock yet, Detective Carrigan complained silently, and some joker was trying to mug him. Seriously, who picked a uniformed cop as his target? Everyone knew cops didn't have any money, and they were more likely than the average citizen to have a weapon. Well, cops were more likely to know how to use one properly, at any rate. Detective Carrigan went to draw his, but the mugger had other ideas.

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 3 = Suspense
Carrigan could practically count the steps left between him and the police station, separating him from the back-up and safety of his fellow officers. Of course, he wasn't in shouting distance yet... something that the well-muscled would-be mugger was probably counting on. Carrigan kept walking, the rapid swish and snap of his dark blue uniform's pant legs betraying just how nervous he was. That, and the bead of sweat starting to gather on his brow. Carrigan tried to tell himself it was the Chicago summer, rather than nerves, but his thoughts were interrupted as the mugger leaped forward.

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 4 = Horror
Detective Carrigan recognized the criminal at a single glance, and did his best not to panic. That was something civilians were allowed, even though it wasn't helpful. Cops, on the other hand, weren't supposed to show fear... not even when he was too far from the station to expect back-up and had a known criminal with the build of Frankenstein's monster closing in.

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 5 = Description
Detective Carrigan loved Chicago. Even now, in the mid-2050's, it maintained some of its original architecture. Wide streets had narrowed over time, as bigger buildings supplanted and replaced older ones, but there were still some alleys where the original brickwork was visible. Unfortunately, Detective Carrigan was currently witnessing some of that brickwork firsthand, as a mugger pinned his neck to the bricks and demanded money.

Your Writing Prompt:
Here's the premise. Your main character is trying to purchase something. (Use your imagination... is it hand sanitizer, or a whole country?) What goes wrong with the purchase?

Try writing the premise using each of the 5 options: Action, Humor, Suspense, Horror, and Description.

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