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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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