Fair warning: if you want to write a novel, you’ll have to commit serious time. A year or two may be the minimum, unless you’re Stephen King, who apparently writes a book every other month and fills his down time with screenplays, for God sakes.
If you finish your manuscript (it’s a book after it’s printed), it’ll be because you stuck with it. I made it a habit. Every morning before work, I went to McDonald’s for an hour. Ordered a burrito and coffee. I wrote from summer until Christmas, and it was finally was done.
For various reasons, I took eight years to write To Daddy, Who I Never Loved: I had a full time job as a reporter and a part time job teaching college classes and writing classes. I got lost. I stopped. I wandered in the desert for 40 days – several times – and wrote nothing at all.
Is 119 words too long for the first sentence of a modern novel? And did they have semicolons in 1859?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” – Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
That was written in 1843. Do you agree that six words sounds like a better first sentence?
“Marley was dead: to begin with.” – Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
Three words, but do really want to begin your first sentence with your birth? “I am born” promises waaay too much backstory in the following chapters. Readers can do without a lot of backstory. Backstory is best dribbled out in bits and pieces, as the story goes forward.
“I Am Born.” Dickens, David Copperfield
Stephen King suggests the first sentence should say: “Listen. Come in here. You want to know this.” King often starts with an anecdote. People love good stories. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption begins: “There’s a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess – I’m the guy who can get it for you. Tailor-made cigarettes, a bag of reefer if you’re partial to that, a bottle of brandy to celebrate your son or daughter’s high school graduation, or almost anything else . . . within reason, that is. It wasn’t always that way.”
So King starts Shawshank – originally a novella in the book Different Seasons – with an anecdote from the narrator, Red, who relates the heroic story of Andy Dufresne.
I would add this: tell me a story, and start with the most interesting fact. How’s this: “When I finally found my daddy, I was 15 years old, and he told me to go home to my mama.” Good sentence. Probably what I should have written for To Daddy, Who I Never Loved.
King also advises to start a story with “voice.” The movie audience is quickly enthralled with Morgan Freeman’s voice. “There’s a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess…”
Can you hear Alice Walker’s voice in The Color Purple:
“You better not never tell nobody but God.”
This is Dennis Lehane in Until Gwen:
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”
This is Graham Greene’s lead in Brighton Rock:
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
Do you hear likeability in the voices of Jane Austen and Graham Greene and Dennis Lahane and Alice Walker? Do you want to lose yourself, be entertained, to go to the setting of the novel?
When to begin
I sat in a workshop 10 years ago with Steve Berry, who has written more 20 books. His advice: begin as close to the end as possible. Fill in the necessary details as they are needed.
Berry writes thrillers, so his advice doesn’t work for every book. But never, never, ever begin with backstory. Never throw a wad of backstory into the first few chapters. It slows the pace, it frustrates the readers, and agents and publishers hate it.
It’s a mistake I made. Then I had to take out pages of backstory and sprinkle it where it belonged, here or there the other 54 chapters.
WRITING EXERCISE 1
I’ve been in jail twice. The first time, I was 15 and I stole a cigarette machine. My partner ratted me out. The second time, I was 17, riding in a car with other teens. A crime was committed, and I refused to rat out my buddies.
Think about an encounter you had with the police. What happened? Were the cops a threat or a help? Did it create a positive or negative attitude within you?
How to write Chapter 1
Jeff Gerke, author of six novels and five non-fiction books, gives us four classic approaches to writing the first chapter.
1. The Prologue Beginning
Tell an anecdote, a short story before the story starts. Red chats about himself and about prison life for four pages before he gets to the point: how Andy Dufresne was railroaded into Shawshank. Not how I would do it, but I haven’t sold as many books as Steven King.
Ghostbusters shows a minor character who sees a ghost, which demonstrates the need for Ghostbusters.
The 2009 Star Trek movie reboot had two prologues:
1 Spock was born on Vulcan, and he was a troubled youth, half human, half-Vulcan.
2 A ship from the future attacks the U.S.S. Kelvin. James T. Kirk’s father died fighting the enemy until his pregnant mother could escape.
Both prologue timelines continue with Spock and Kirk in their preteens: Spock was too principled to fight; Kirk stole a car. The story proper opens years later, when young Kirk and the audience sees U.S.S. Enterprise being built in an Iowa shipyard.
Could scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have begun their story here, and shortened a 127-minute script? That’s the question to ask if you want to begin with begin a prologue: gee, the prologue fascinates me, but did it contain information the audience really needed to know? Don’t let your prologue become a dumping ground for backstory, which is what made the Star Trek prologue so controversial.
A prologue may establish the way things are in the ordinary world before the hero’s story begins.
A prologue may explain why the hero is the way he is when the action begins.
A prologue may hint at or reveal danger that will soon affect the hero’s life.
A prologue may set the tone for the novel.
If you’re self publishing, do what you want. If a prologue engages the reader, it’s good. However, prologues are in disputed territory. So-called fiction experts advise writers never to write a prologue. They don’t have a satisfactory explanation why, just that all prologues are bad. They also can’t explain why so many best sellers and successful movies have prologues.
Bottom line: if you’re trying to sell your book through an agent, a prologue could keep you from getting an agent or a publisher.
2. Action Beginning
In an action story, the hero-to-be starts onstage in the Ordinary World:
Mulan feeds chickens on the family farm.
WALL-E collects and compacts garbage.
Juno walks through her neighborhood to the corner store to buy a pregnancy test.
Dorothy rides her bike and complains about Kansas.
If this sounds familiar, it’s the Ordinary World from The Hero’s Journey, before the hero becomes heroic.
3. In Medias Res
In medias res is Latin for “in the middle of things.” The story starts during the action in the Special World.
Star Wars IV: A New Hope begins during a space battle. Darth Vader captures Princess Leia.
Battle: Los Angeles begins with military helicopters flying over a city under attack by aliens. Then the story rewinds to the ordinary world, 24 hours earlier. About 50 percent of the way through the entire story, the timeline finally catches up with the moment when the military helicopters are flying over a city under attack from aliens. This time, the audience knows what’s going on.
The rewind is a gimmick. It creates suspense in the first few moments of the story. It loses suspense when it rewinds to the backstory, because the audience knows the hero is still alive in the near future.
Then it causes more suspense, because when the soldiers fly in into Los Angeles, we know it’s going to be attacked by aliens. That’s the payoff: readers are thrilled when they know what’s going to happen.
4. The Frame
The fourth major way to begin your first chapter is to frame the main story with a second story.
Scriptwriter William Goldman frames The Princess Bride. The Grandson – played by Fred Savage – is supposed to be sick, and he stays home from school and plays video games. The Grandfather – played by Peter Falk – starts reading a story to pass time. Grandson and Grandfather exist in modern times in the Ordinary World. The second story, swashbuckling fantasy, starts hundreds of years ago in the Special World.
The movie cuts back to Peter Falk and Fred Savage, where we hear them comment on the fantasy story. A bond develops between Grandfather and Grandson. Then it’s back to the fantasy world. The movie ends with the modern day story.
Titanic is framed by Old Rose’s narration. It begins in modern times, when Bill Pullman is searching for the Heart of the Ocean, the diamond Cal gave to Young Rose. Old Rose bookends her 1997 story into April 1912, when Young Rose – Kate Winslett – meets Jack Dawson – played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The present-day story cuts back and forth to Young Rose, and ends with Old Rose talking to Lovett (Bill Pullman), on the 1997 search ship, before tossing the Heart of the Ocean into the ocean:
ROSE: The hardest part about being so poor was being so rich. But every time I thought of selling it, I thought of Cal. And somehow I always got by.
LOVETT: Please… think about this a second.
ROSE: I have. I came all the way here so this could go back where it belongs. You look for treasures in the wrong place, Mr. Lovett. Only life is priceless, and making each day count.
How frames work
The historical story works best if it’s far removed from modern day.
The modern-day frame shows someone getting involved in the backstory, like Fred Savage or Bill Pullman or Fred Savage.
The frame usually has narrator or a narrative style, because audiences love hearing stories told.
The weakest point of the Titanic frame is that the audience knows Old Rose survived the Titanic disaster. The strongest point is that the audience doesn’t see Jack in the future, and wonders what happened to him. They speculate on what happened to Jack, which means they’re engaged. When they see Jack die, their suspicions are confirmed, and the audience loves being right.
John Irving used bookends to write Avenue of Mysteries in 2015. Juan Diego is 14 as he and his sister, Lupe, a mind reader, are growing up in Mexico. The other bookend is set the older Juan Diego travels the Philippines, and his memories of Lupe travel with him. But where is she? Why was the story in the past about Lupe and Juan, and the story of the present only about Juan?
If you use the frame, show plot movement and character growth in both frames. Old Rose, who is 101, showed the audience that she still loved Jack after 85 years by throwing the necklace in the ocean. It was her tribute to Jack, and a way of letting go.
How important is chapter 1? If an agent doesn’t like your chapter 1, she (about 90 percent of agents are female) won’t read chapter 2. She won’t present your unpublished novel to a publisher.
If your published book makes it to Barnes & Noble, Chapter 1 becomes the decider. If a customer is not interested in Chapter 1, your book winds up on the cart outside with a $3 sticker pasted across your forehead.
Resist the terrorists
Agents and editors warn writers: “Grab me from the opening sentence! Don’t waste one word!”
But the truth is, readers are searching for what is true, honest, original and brave. This is my advice: remember why you’re telling your story, and tell the best story you can.
What purpose does your story serve? What should the reader learn? Write down the answers to those questions. Look at them from time to time.
WRITING EXERCISE 2
As Jeff Gerke suggested, write the first scene with a prologue, action-hero, in media res, or frame beginning. Whichever you choose for this writing exercise, choose a second one and write it too.
How to outline
If you haven’t outlined before you write the first words of the first paragraph of the first chapter, it’s OK. I know you want to write. However, you must know where your story is going.
So write down the entire story in advance. I can suggest three methods:
A standard outline on paper.
On index cards.
Write a short story.
If you try writing your entire manuscript by the seat of your pants, you may wind up where I did: lost in the middle of your story, drifting aimlessly, wondering what to do next, giving up, endlessly rewriting, thinking you’re never going to get it done.
I also suggest you find a book much like the one you want to write. I read several: The Great Gatsby. To Kill A Mockingbird. Catcher in the Rye.
Read it. Blueprint it. Count the words. Count the pages. Count the scenes. The Great Gatsby has 180 pages. Nine chapters. 20 pages per chapter. Just 48,000 words.
There’s nothing wrong with blueprinting someone else’s book. It’s not plagiarizing. It’s learning.
Rachel Scheller, in a July 17, 2012, Writer’s Digest post, says outlining is like making a list. One way to outline is to number each chapter on an index card. List one scene on each index card. Here’s an example with a one-hour Star Trek TV show:
On a grain-producing planet, a local merchant gives a tribble to Lt. Uhura.
Uhura brings her tribble aboard the Enterprise.
The tribble eats and eats, then has a litter of tribbles.
Each tribble breeds litters of tribbles.
Scotty discovers tribbles in the air vents.
Kirk finds a tribble on his captain’s chair.
Kirk and Spock beam to the space station.
Kirk opens up storage compartments and tribbles fall on his head.
Tribbles have eaten all the grain.
On nine more plot cards, write subplots that complicate the main plot:
The Klingons are on shore leave too.
Klingons call the Enterprise a garbage scow.
A barroom brawl breaks out.
Kirk investigates the fight and bawls out Scotty.
Sherman’s Planet wants to plant a new grain.
Klingons poison the grain.
Tribbles eat poisoned grain.
McCoy discovers the tribbles are dying.
It’s all a Klingon plot.
Lay plot cards on the kitchen table in chronological order.
Lay a subplot card under each plot card. That’s how the story cuts back and forth between scenes.
When all the cards are laid out in order, read them like a book or a storyboard.
Do they read like a story?
Is something left out? Write another card to fill in the story.
Does something need to be foreshadowed? Write another index card.
You can also outline on a computer.
One way to do that is to write down in the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey on a computer screen. After each step, tell your story in a few sentences.
After each step, add foreshadowing, complications, subplots, motivations, thresholds, hooks at the ends of chapters, meeting the mentor, the meeting the goddess, someone dying.
Every scene must serve a specific purpose. Every scene must propel the story forward. Each scene makes the next scene inevitable. Even the roughest framework gives you a sharper eye.
Your outline could be a simple list of scenes.
Your outline could be a detailed chronological narrative of all your plot threads and how they relate.
Knowing where you’re headed frees your mind from everything but the writing. Being prepared calms you, equips you to tap into your storytelling voice – which is the most important ingredient in a good Chapter 1.
If you outline chapter by chapter, when you finish chapter 1, you know exactly what’s going to happen in chapter 2 scene one, and chapter 14 scene 1. No writer’s block.
Tense and POV
Most readers are totally unconscious of tense and POV; all they care about is the story. But Chapter One is the time for writers to decide tense and POV.
POV is simple:
a) First person: I chased the beer wagon.
b) Third-person limited: Tom chased the beer wagon.
c) Omniscient: Tom chased the beer wagon while the villagers watched and wondered, would all the beer in the world be enough for this oaf?
d) Second person: You chased the beer wagon.
I would never write in second person. Exactly is “you?” The reader knows who Tom is. The reader knows who “I” am. “You” is awkward and is rarely correct.
Studies show older readers tend to prefer past tense, while younger ones dig present tense.
Keep a first novel simple, writing gurus say, with first person and past tense. Their approach has worked for thousands of first novels, but I say go for whatever feels right to the story, simple or not. I believe in experimentation. I do, however, recommend that you select present or past tense and stick with it.
If you’re still unsure of your tense or POV choices, try these techniques:
Go to your bookshelf and select your favorite novels. Which POVs and tenses did you pick? Why do you suppose the authors chose those approaches?
Rehearse. Write a scene using first person, then third-person limited, then omniscient. Which feels right for your story?
If you’re still in doubt, don’t freeze up – just pick one and start writing. You can change later.
Spare the setting
A common error aspiring novelists make is too much depth in an opening scene. You’ve got it all pictured in your head: the colors, sounds, flavors and feelings.
That’s old school. I started The Song of the Lark, and it chews on the scenery and the color of the doctor’s hair for pages before Willa Cather finally gets to the point: the doctor has to go to a woman’s house and help deliver a baby.
However, the oldest girl has pneumonia, so he also rescues her from death’s door. The doctor forms a special attachment to the older girl, and it turns out she’s the heroine.
If an editor had told Willa Cather, “start with the heroine,” Willa would have written a better Chapter 1 and saved 10 minutes of my life. Come to think of it, I never finished that book.
In Chapter 1, just give readers a basic feel for the setting, whether it’s a lunar colony or a Kansas City street. Don’t pack in details. Later, if the details are relevant, tell all about the house, the street, the neighbors and maybe even the dog’s make and model.
But, you object, what of all the great novels that opened with descriptions of place, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Edna Ferber’s Giant? The answer is, that’s the way great novelists did it back then, before television. Today, we know what a Brooklyn ghetto looks like and feels like, even if we’ve never been there, because we’ve seen a thousand TV shows and movies.
As a writer, I try to do what Elmore Leonard advises: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
WRITING EXERCISE 3
End Chapter 1 with a hook. One possibility: think about step 2 of the hero’s journey. What is the call? Who is the herald? Where and when will the hero hear the call? If you end Chapter 1 with that hint, the reader has to start chapter 2.
And here’s another suggestion: end Chapter 1 by foreshadowing an event later in the manuscript. That foreshadowing turns out to be false.