QuickFix: Liven Up Your Novel’s Opening

Nuthin' but trouble!

Nuthin’ but trouble!

First novels often have a common problem: the protagonist is on stage alone, traveling to a destination, sitting and thinking. While successful novels may contain some of these same elements, the combination often ends up stalling a story.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at each of these problems and offer some fixes.

The Wilson Principle

When you introduce your protagonist or main character, it’s tempting to put her onstage by herself. After all, you want readers to know and develop sympathy for this character and as soon as possible. Yet without any interaction with another character, your hero or heroine is handicapped. Unless you can justify a character who talks to herself, readers are trapped inside the character’s head with the thoughts (and often, memories) that character is dying to relate. The Wilson Principle simply says it will be easier for your character to relate to the readers if he interacts with another character. When two or more are onstage, dialogue, conflict and action are much more likely to occur. That’s why Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Cast Away” had the volleyball named “Wilson” to talk to while he was shipwrecked on a deserted island. Put another character onstage with your protagonist as soon as it’s practical to do so.

Driving to the Story

Another “cliché” for first-time novelists to avoid is called “driving to the story.” The protagonist is arriving at/returning to a setting, where the meat of the story takes place. Why do novelists do this? In my experience, the main reason is to introduce where the character has already been. In fiction this almost always translates to the dreaded back story. Writers feel compelled to color in as much background as possible before the real action gets going. Yet the truth is, most readers prefer action to info. If you must show your character’s travel to the main setting, keep it as brief as possible. This goes for most travel in a story. Unless the travel itself is important (as in a journey story), it’s not necessary to act out the going from one place to another. In fiction, keeping this guideline in mind will help you avoid the third pitfall: sitting.

Get Your Players Moving

When we draft our scenes, it’s tempting to get all the dialogue down. Nothing wrong with this–unless you leave it this way. If your scene has the characters mostly sitting (at a table, drinking tea, in a car or other transportation), you’re more likely to fall into the traps of Talking Heads, Speechifying Dialogue, limited body language (sighing, shrugging, eye rolling) or Information Loading. As you begin to revise, be on the lookout for too many scenes where the characters are sitting. Not only does this limit character movements, it creates a static and repetitive feel for the story. Instead of so many scenes around a table, try putting the characters into a different setting and make them DO SOMETHING as they converse. If you can get these simple concepts into your novel’s opening, you’ll enliven your story and create more interest.

Your Turn: What are some ways you have revised your novel’s opening?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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