In this age of supposed instant gratification, the smart money is on starting your novel with an action scene. You want to skip descriptions of the weather, setting in general, slow introductions of the protagonist, anything really that doesn’t immediately grip the reader. This is drummed into writers who aspire to get published because, after all, agents will read your first page and often stop right there if they don’t like it. There’s no time for them to wade into the first few chapters to get caught up; you grab them from the get-go, or not at all.
(This is, of course, assuming that they’ve liked your query letter enough to request a partial.)
So, it seems almost formulaic at this point to start with something that will grab the reader and not let them go. The Da Vinci Code starts with the curator being murdered by an albino assassin in the Louvre. Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains begins with the hero having to go into a graveyard to kill an animated corpse of his friend’s mother. The City & The City by China Mieville begins with the discovery of a corpse, and the resultant crime scene investigation.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I am fully appreciative of the fact that if you don’t grab the reader, you’ll lose them. What I’m unsure of is always starting the book off with an action scene.
Now that I think about it, one of the common mistakes I’ve heard that writers make is starting their story too early. Instead of starting the plot at the right moment, they begin narrating a few days before that point arrives, and so the interesting bit only kicks in around Chapter 3. The advice is to therefor cut off Chapter’s 1 & 2, and dive right into the interesting bit, whatever it is.
But, but but! What if Chapter’s 1 & 2 explain the character’s motivation, why they’re there, who they are?
The nasty editor voice in my head has just tut-tutted impatiently. A good writer should be able to reveal that information media-res as he goes. You don’t need to set aside an entire Chapter or 2 to do that.
So OK, say you chop off Chapter’s 1 & 2, and start right at where things begin to get interesting. How do you grab the reader with the action and interesting bits AND reveal the character’s situation and motivations without burdening the action with exposition? I guess… I guess you can have the character demonstrate what they’re going through with certain key descriptions. And… and anything that you can’t gracefully include gets dropped. Perhaps it was always unnecessary? Or you can reveal it subtly as the story goes, answering questions where the answers might naturally arise, in conversations with other characters?
As you may have guessed, I’m debating chopping off Chapters 1 & 2 from my current novel. I’ve been reading a Chapter out loud to Grace each night, and at one point during Chapter 2 she asked, incredibly politely so as to not offend, where exactly the story was going. I replied something to the effect that, oh, I was just setting the character up, showing why she was in NYC, and who she was, but… I was already dead in the water.
If I was dead in the water, I was then subsequently harpooned and pulled aboard a fishing boat to be sliced and diced when Will commented that the first three chapters hadn’t gripped him as immediately as the beginning of my previous two books.
So. I think I’m going to have to chop off Chapters 1 & 2, and probably 3, actually, and start it with Maribel sitting in the little park off Hudson and Christopher St, just before the phooka makes his arrival. And have Sita start off at the end of Chapter 2, I guess, but cram that part into the beginning of Chapter 4, skipping the whole part about the Chinese restaurant and her reveries on Mumbai for when she first sights the Green Man standing across the street from her and waiting for his kiss.
You know? I kind of like that. Those first few Chapters have given me a headache since I wrote them. They were overwrought, complicated, and completely unlike the rest of the novel that followed in language, pacing and tone. If I just chop them right off, I think it will do a world of good.
And better yet, it will mean my novel starts at the interesting bit.