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The Promise of the Novel

In December, I was feverishly working on finishing my Writer’s Digest webinar critiques from the MG and YA novel presentation (if you missed it or are just joining us, I’m teaching a MG and YA craft intensive webinar again on February 9th, more info to come soon). This experience is always fascinating for me. Not just because I have no idea how it’s possible for me to do over 300 critiques in such a short period of time. It’s interesting because I get to read reams and reams of novel-openings-in-progress.

Now, a novel opening is one of the hardest things in the world to do right. In fact, there’s a whole book about why that is (and how to jump this difficult hurdle) called HOOKED by Les Edgerton (Writer’s Digest Books). I highly recommend it. Anyway. One of the issues I ran into during critiques was the promise of the novel. What do I mean by that?

As readers, we like to telescope into the future a bit when we pick up a book. After reading the first 5 or 10 pages, our imaginations start feverishly working on where the story will take us. Conflict is usually presented in the first chapter, or a world is introduced, or we meet characters, and we think, “Okay. I get it. This will be the central conflict of the plot that I’m reading here,” or, “I’m going to spend the next 350 pages with these people,” or, “I think we’re in some futuristic dystopian society, cool. Can’t wait to learn more.”

This is a natural process and readers do it almost subconsciously. The key for you — the writer — is to know that and to build the right promise into the beginning of your novel. You always want to work with your reader’s imagination, make the right promise, and then deliver it. They’re going to be telescoping forward into your story, so you might as well make them a) excited to read on, and b) at least right about where they think you’re going with your novel. The most common error I see is one of a misguided or misdirected promise.

I wish I could say this has only happened once or twice, but this scenario happens to me at almost every conference. I read a novel opening that takes place in school or with the family or during a sports game. These scenes are introductory and often info-dump-y and they don’t really do much for me, so I say that to the writer. They always look at me and say, “Oh, well, the rest of the story doesn’t even have anything to do with school/family/sports. I just thought I had to put them in a normal setting first and then go off to the good stuff.”

Not kidding. This happens all the time. And I understand it. When we talk about plot, we often talk about a character’s normal and how the inciting incident wrecks it. So, of course, for most kids, “normal” means family and school. But I also talk about prime real estate and directing your reader’s attention. This relates to the promise of the novel like so: if you start your story in school and going through all the usual suspects of introducing the bully and the Queen Bee and the crush, your reader will think (not without good reason), “Ah, I am going to be spending the next four hours reading a school story.”

And if on page 11, aliens descend and suddenly your protagonist is a long-lost space queen, well…your reader might be a bit jarred. If the story is good, they will reset their expectations and forge on, but you don’t want to give them this kind of cognitive dissonance. The same goes for genre. If something reads contemporary realistic for enough pages to make me think that it’s a contemporary realistic novel, don’t toss dragons at me on page 25. My expectations have gelled. I am settling into your tale. I don’t want to suddenly discover that I’ll be reading high fantasy.

If you have to start in a normal setting, at least drop hints. If yours is a ghost story, make your character see eerie shadows that disappear when she looks them head-on. If there are going to be dragons, you better let us know that this is a world that has dragons in it (a news report about dragon shortages playing in the background would be a cliche, but I hope you understand what I mean). If your character will be going on a long journey, drop subtle hints and foreshadowing, like briefly describing walking shoes piled by the door. Whatever. Just think about your story — the core of it, the plot, the arc — and then make sure that the beginning either starts with it or strongly suggests it.

And if any element plays a strong role in your opening, let it play a strong role throughout. No spending 10 pages focusing on a school story if school does not show up ever again. In fiction, you plant seeds from the very beginning and they grow in importance as you hurtle toward the climax. Don’t scatter pumpkin seeds at the beginning of planting season if you’re trying to grow a tomato garden.

You never want to confuse your reader by accident and leave them scratching their heads halfway through your beginning. Save the misdirection for withholding information and crafting suspense and surprise. Instead, make a solemn promise to your audience that you will tell them the story they think they’ve settled down to read. That doesn’t mean make it predictable, but it means build their expectations just so and make them excited to follow you down the path you’ve set up for them from page one.

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  1. Juliana’s avatar

    Lovely post. I think writers hear so many ‘rules’ for the introduction that they try to squeeze in everything they think should be in there. It usually ends up pushing away the natural beginning of the story. Thanks for the heads up and the reminder to keep thing all aligned :)

  2. Julie Daines’s avatar

    This is awesome advice. And to understand how to do it well, try this:

    Select about ten well-written, highly acclaimed books and read and analyze the first chapter. (Maybe the first two chapters.) Pay attention to how the story unfolds, how the world is set up, what the main character’s overall goal is, and how the central conflict is introduced. The Hunger Games, Lois Lowry, Shannon Hale, Markus Zusak–are some examples.

  3. Dawn’s avatar

    This is so true! When I read LIAR by Justine Larbastier (sp?) I thought it was contemporary realistic, but halfway through the story changes to paranormal (no spoilers) and I wanted to throw the book across the room. That said, I loved it when I kept reading. And to her credit, she did drop hints along the way that I somehow ignored. But it felt jarring to me, as you said.

    Oh, and HOOKED is definitely worth reading, numerous times. Great source of information.

  4. Alice Fleury’s avatar

    I’ve read Hooked several times. Lots of great info in it. It’s great to hear someone else’s take on beginnings, described different. Helps clarify and I love your take. Great info.

  5. Suzanne’s avatar

    just thank you. as I am writing, well, re-writing the beginning of my book, you have inspired in me an excitement! thanks. so needed that today.

  6. Melissa’s avatar

    Thank you for this post! It made things start to click for me about problems with one of my ya novels. I will definitley have to read Hooked.”

  7. Nicole Alexander’s avatar

    What a wonderful post! You’ve already given me an idea for how to improve the opening of my second book (that whole idea of telescoping forward). This is one for my bookmarks in case I ever forget!

  8. Rose’s avatar

    My crit group had already decided that our next craft meeting will be about beginnings, with homework to study Edgerton’s book. So your post fits really well–thank you!

  9. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    I have been knee deep in poetry and picture books recently, but come February I’m getting your notes back out and attempting to write a decent start. I totally get it, but actually doing it is so hard. The whole story is no more than 10,000 which is worrying me, but I could flesh it out a lot more. It’s so much easier to cut than flesh out though. It looks like I need to read that book you recommend and get reading as many fantasy MG’s as I can get my hands on. Thanks, Mary!

  10. Melissa’s avatar

    Loved this! It’s really enlightening to hear you talk about what problems you’re seeing in current wip’s and how to fix them. Thanks!

  11. Linda’s avatar

    Am just beginning a new manuscript today–thanks for the well-timed heads-up!

  12. Shannon’s avatar

    Just registered for your webinar. Can’t wait.

    I’ve had that problem with openings, but I’ve also had the reverse problem: getting so worried about nailing them that I keep rewriting them, at the expense of writing the rest of the book. Sometime, I’m going to try to start writing in the middle or end of the book and see if that doesn’t work out better.

  13. AR’s avatar

    My favorite novel opening is an old classic, Mary Robert Rinehart’s WHEN A MAN MARRIES. The novel is about a high-society set that unexpectedly get quarantined in a house together… and the way relationships change as a result. But the first several pages have to cover some rather generic material, where a society girl puts together a dinner part to cheer up a fellow on the anniversary of his divorce from a woman he still loves. What makes this introductory material great fun to read in terms of hints, is that the main character, who is also the first person narrator, is ranting the whole time about how horribly this was all going to turn out and if only she’d known at the time. She keeps throwing out seemingly random but specific details, all about Japanese butlers and how fat the host was and you have no way of knowing how these are going to be important plot points or how a simple dinner party could turn out so badly but it sounds hilarious.

    “When the dreadful thing occurred that night, every one turned on me. The injustice of it hurt me the most. They said I got up the dinner, that I asked them to give up other engagements and come, that I promised all sorts of jollification, if they would come, and when they did come and got in the papers and everyone – but ourselves – laughed himself black in the face, they turned on me! I, who suffered ten times to their one! I shall never forget what Dallas Brown said to me, standing with a coal shovel in one hand and a – well, perhaps it would be better to tell it all in the order it happened.”

    But of course she doesn’t. :) She lets out the narrative rope little by little but keeps throwing out these enraged statements until she gets to the meat. I’ve always thought it was clever and delightful.

  14. Holly White’s avatar

    I had always heard that you should start your story not in the “normal,” but right at the moment things change for the protagonist, that moment when “normal” goes away forever. The way I have done mine is to start with the first sentence telling what the Big Change is, and then I use the rest of the first chapter to go back to the beginning of that day and tell about the events leading up to the Big Change. And then I end up the chapter with again stating the Big Change, but by now, the reader knows a bit more about the implications of the change, and hopefully, is hooked into finding out even more. And that may or may not be a good way to do it, but I am sure I will find out once you critique my beginning, since I was one of your webinar students the other day. Looking forward to it! Meanwhile, I am going to have to get hold of Hooked as well.

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