As I mentioned last week, I recently had a meeting with an agent. She liked my novel, but had some feedback. In other words, she suggested some changes. Mostly, she felt I needed to start the story a little later than I did in the copy that I had submitted to her.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struggling, trying to decide where the story begins. Because I had originally written the novel as a literary work, I was focusing on the psychological and emotional aspects of my protagonist. However, the agent suggested the story would work better as a crime novel, in which case I need to start as close to the action as possible. That’s a fair point, but I have several options regarding where the ‘action’ really begins.
After working for years on getting this story written, it’s not easy to go back to the beginning and dismantle it. My initial thought was I’d just start with chapter two, but after tinkering for a while, I realised that I needed to chip off a few pages from the beginning of that chapter, as well. Argh!
You can moan all you want, and believe me, I did, but eventually you have to remember you’re a professional and just get on with it. You cut out the scenes that aren’t working–don’t worry, you may be able to salvage them for later in the story–and just get on with it. You can wipe the blood stains off the pages or the laptop later.
How do you know where the action begins? That’s the real question, isn’t it? Is it when the murder happens? When the boy meets the girl? When the wife discovers the infidelity? We all know life isn’t that simple. Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver showed us the paths that leads to a significant event can be many and complex.
It’s important, too, to know what sort of book you are writing. If you are working on a literary novel, as I thought I was, you can afford to take a more leisurely approach, working your way through the psychology of the characters into the event. However, if you are writing a crime novel, for instance, you might want to begin with the murder, or the discovery of the crime. You need to get the action started as soon as possible. Every genre has rules, and you need to know what they are.
In my particular case, the story is a bit more complicated, and I can’t really go into detail without giving away too much of the plot. There are several points where I could start the narrative; none is wrong, and they are all equally right. Where I begin is largely a matter of taste.
Curiously, one of the strangest problems I faced with restarting the novel, a project I have worked on for the past three years, was finding the voice again. For some reason, the character just didn’t sound right. It took me days to get it right. Part of the problem was I had found a great opening line that I was determined to keep–but it didn’t sound like my heroine. More sighs, and back to the drawing board.
Once I realised what was causing the problem, I deleted the offending line and started again. Now the opening flowed pretty smoothly. I still have a fair bit of work to do, but I’m finally on the right track.
So how can you decide where to begin your story?
- Start as close to the action as possible. As I have already said, it’s for you to decide where that is. You may have to make a few false starts before you land on the right spot. Or you may instinctively know exactly where that right moment is. A good general rule of thumb is to start in medias res, which is ‘in the middle of things.’ To do this, you pick a big emotional scene, or a confrontation, to open the story. Of course, you’ll have to insert the back story into the narrative later. This approach isn’t as popular as it once was. Dealing with all the exposition and flashbacks is messy, but you can’t deny it’s a powerful way to open a story.
- Make sure your opening’s tone matches the rest of the story. A blood-and-guts beginning won’t work for a tender love story, for instance. Neither will a sentimental start work for a violent thriller. A lot of people will read the first paragraph or the opening page of a novel before deciding whether to buy a book or not, and they won’t thank you if you mislead them. Of course, you may think you’re creating a sense of contrast, and that can be effective, but you need to drop hints of the changes to come into the narrative so those changes won’t blindside your readers.
- Know the rules of your genre, whatever they are, and follow them. Only break them if you are very sure you know what you’re doing.
- Be brutal about rewrites. If you are lucky enough to get feedback from a reliable source, then act on it. Yes, it’s a lot of work, and yes, it can break your heart, but this is what separates the professional author from the amateur.
- See you at the start…