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September 7, 2018

Shocking Introductions: Crafting the Perfect Start to a Story

by C. M. North


One of the main criticisms levied against my debut novel, 22 Scars, is that it takes a while to get into. It lacks initial momentum, for lack of a better phrase; it starts with a whisper, and although (I like to believe) it builds to a heightened crescendo of emotional turmoil and unexpected revelations, it doesn’t necessarily shout out from the opening lines that this is going to be a story that will reward your emotional investment. Enough people have said it eventually gets there that I want to believe I achieved something at least good, if not great, but it’s certainly taught me a lesson about how to start a book.

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This is something I’m taking with me into my sophomore novel, which is in the beginning draft stages as we speak. I’m not a fast writer, and it may be some time before it sees the light of day, but this story—tentatively entitled The Broken—I intend to start with a bang.

To give a brief summary (bear in mind, of a story that isn’t fully developed yet), The Broken tells the story of a once-popular rock musician, and his life in the aftermath of a suicide for which his band was blamed. I have a lot of thoughts of what I want to transpire over the course of the novel, but one of the things that’s been fixed in my mind for a while now is that I want to open with the suicide itself.

Now, this is for more than just shock value; I think there are a lot of novels, especially pulp fiction novels, that go out of their way to depict graphic sex and violence for the sake of simple titillation. I won’t claim to be above such things, but I’d like to think that one of the successes of 22 Scars was the realism with which I depicted depression and self-harm. One of the reasons I chose to do this was to hopefully avoid glamorizing such things; I didn’t want young readers to think that self-harm is okay to do, or at the very least, not without consequences. These themes will probably make a resurgence in The Broken, but I wanted to take it a step further and address suicide more directly than I did in 22 Scars.

Of course, I could choose to do so in a scene buried somewhere in the middle of the book; it might even make for a solid climax to the story. But I’d rather bring it forward, for a couple of reasons. One is that I want people to know exactly what kind of ride they’re in for; I’ve had people tell me they had to stop reading 22 Scars because they didn’t realize the depths it was going to go into. I’m also now keenly aware of the need for a strong opening, and structurally, it makes sense: douse the reader with gasoline, light a match, and watch the story burn.

I’ll have to be careful in the execution; too much, and it could veer into the Stephen King realm of shock horror (an early chapter from Stephen King’s IT comes to mind, in which Stan slits his wrists to avoid the horror of returning to face the creature in Derry). Too little, and it fails to address the serious nature of the subject.

It’s an interesting thing to consider to the opening lines, paragraphs and chapters of a book. After capturing the reader with a great book cover (discussed in my last post), you really only have a sentence or two to hook the reader. Humor, suspense, shock—all of these work, of course, and crafting that perfect opening line is the aspiration of all writers. If you can keep the reader for a few sentences, you have a better chance of getting them to read a few paragraphs; and if you can keep them after that, they’re putty in your hands.

I can’t argue that I’m a master of opening lines—between my young adult and fantasy work, I’ve written all of four of them, and two are the opening lines of sequels—but I am learning. Many books choose to open with internal monologue, allowing the reader directly into the thoughts of the main (or secondary) character. Some open with dialogue, which is really another way of showing character—just a little more objectively. Most importantly, a strong opening line, in my opinion, should tell the reader something fascinating, whilst leaving them with a question, the answer to which they are burning to discover.

But you can’t let it peter out after that; the opening paragraphs, the opening scene, as it were, needs to repeat this — it needs to capture the reader’s attention, yet leave them desperate for more. How do you do that? How do you shock the reader, yet keep them hooked?

One of the most terrible-in-a-good-way openings I have in recent memory is actually the first chapter of Christa Parravani’s memoir, Her. In it, she mentions—almost in passing, as it were—the traumas of her and her identical twin, leading up to her sister’s fatal overdose. The casualness in which such terrible things are mentioned are gut-churning: a kind of fascination of horror that only comes with things that sound too appalling to be true, and yet are all-too-real. The reader’s guilty desire for more detail is sated later in the book, but the opening chapter tells a summary of a life that makes you feel at once terrified, traumatized, and dreadfully sad.

Ironically, my favorite books don’t always follow this concept of shocking the reader, though; many of my most beloved stories begin with long descriptions, details, and place-settings that hardly advance the plot at all. Others have satisfying conclusions to each chapter—hardly an invitation to keep reading. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, oft-mentioned here as my favorite novel of all time, does this deftly, and of course, needed to as a serialized novel.

Yet not all stories are the same, and nor are all readers. Some may find themselves wrapped up in a fantastical world so deeply they scarcely notice—or indeed prefer it to a rapid—plot. Others want to be dropped into the middle of the action and not released until the final page—something Suzanne Collins does strikingly in The Hunger Games with rapid exposition.

Of course, all stories begin somewhere, and whilst epic tomes might find it appropriate to start very early—indeed some with the very birth of the protagonist—I feel the excitement craved by many younger readers lends itself better to starting off in the middle of the action, so to speak—and backtracking from there, if necessary.

What are your thoughts? Do you need to be shocked and/or bedazzled by the opening chapter of a story, or do you prefer a slower paced scene, setting the stage for adventure to come?

C.M. North is a trained musician, coffee addict and author of 22 Scars, a young adult novel about teenage depression and growing up with tragedy and trauma. He lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, son and cat Pia, who insists she take precedence over writing. You can find him at cmnorthauthor.com.


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