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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Decision That Starts the Story

This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

The Decision That Starts the Story

Knowing How and Where to Begin Your Novel

Start your story in such a way that the reader has to buy the book to keep reading.

The beginning of a book is where the writer hooks the reader and reels him in. The opening page makes the reader keep reading, and then the end of the chapter is what gets him to buy the book.

While that opening page is key, so is the end of that chapter.

Avoid Long, Dragging Beginnings

A long beginning will sometimes deter a reader browsing in the bookstore because the beginning may be indicative of the entire book. The reader wants to know what the book will be about, what it will be like, and they don't have hours in front of the bookshelf. They will want to know quickly.

Therefore, as a writer, start as you mean to go on.

Create the same climate in the beginning as you do for the entire book. Most importantly, don't make the beginning drag on for too long. Keep your reader's attention. If it picks up later in the novel, don't make the reader sift through a long opening to get to the good stuff. Trim that opening and put that good stuff up front.

End the Beginning With a Character Decision

One of the most effective ways to lock in the reader's interest is with a strong character decision at the end of the beginning.

This might be the end of the first chapter, but if it isn't, then make sure that first chapter ends on an exciting hook to keep the reader reading to the decision moment.

This Decision signals the character committing himself to the rest of the story. It signals to the reader the "start of the journey." The character is moving forward rather than retreating or avoiding or stalling, and the reader is pulled along with that character for the rest of the book.

According to Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer:

The thing that hooks your reader, in the opening, is curiosity.

The thing that holds him the rest of the way, straight through to the final paragraph, is suspense.

The opening pages create that curiosity. The reader—like the character—is not yet committed to the book.

But that Decision creates suspense. The Decision signals where the story will be leading—according to Swain, "a fight"—which grabs the reader and commits him to buy the book so he can keep reading.

Indicate the Threat

The Decision has the most emotional impact on the reader if you also hint at the threat to the character's journey.

It's usually best to establish that threat before the character makes the decision, so that he chooses to commit to the story goal in the face of opposition. This not only creates reader sympathy for a resolute, brave character, but this also heightens suspense.

Will the character succeed or not? How will he battle the opposition?

This threat does not need to be guns and explosions. In a women's fiction, it could be family friction or a devastating secret. In a comedy, it could be a conniving coworker or a whining friend.

Regardless, the threat—or at least the hint of a threat—makes for riveting reading. That browser in the bookstore will reach the Decision, realize he has read the entire chapter, and go up front to buy your book.


  1. Camy,

    As you know, I find many good resources here on your blog. As such, I have included your blog as one of the seven I selected for the Kreativ Blogger Award.

    Thanks for everything you do to help writers!



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