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Donna Fletcher Crow

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Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more. www.donnafletchercrow.com

Fay Sampson

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Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick. http://www.faysampson.co.uk

That All-important James Bond Openin g

By Fay Sampson ~ March 14, 2011

James Bond hangs from the undercarriage of a helicopter spinning dizzily thousands of feet above an active volcano. Dodging hot lava spewing at him from below and bullets fired from above, he scrambles into the cabin, wrestles with the villain as the chopper, now pilotless, spirals toward the abyss. At the last minute Bond defeats the enemy and rights the 'copter. All without wrinkling his French cuffs.

We don't have a clue what's going on, but we are rivited. Novelist and editor Fay Sampson says that's how our novels should start:

 

 

 

Not long ago I went to an excellent session on short story writing, led by Veronica Bright. Much of her wisdom would hold good for novelists too.

 

One of the things that stood out for me was Anton Chekhov’s advice that the story should start as if the reader were arriving at the theatre slightly after the start of the play.

 

Times are gone when the first chapter of a novel did little more than paint the setting and introduce the characters. There might be a hint of a plot to come: word of a newcomer arriving in the neighbourhood, for example. But the action didn’t really get underway until Chapter 2.

 

Television changed the way we read books. We are now used to being pitchforked into the middle of the action. We don’t yet know who these people on the screen are, or what is their situation. We trust the scriptwriter that all will become clear if we hang in there. Meanwhile, the plot has taken off. An argument is going on, a discovery is made, someone is trying to make sense of a mystery. The plot is already underway.

 

It’s the same with books. Before we have reached the foot of page 1, the story should be gathering momentum. Our curiosity needs to be aroused sufficiently for us to want to turn the page and find what happens next.

 

Part of my work is critiquing the novels of new writers, as an editor for the Writers’ Workshop, www.thewritersworkshop.co.uk.  A common mistake of first-timers is to give me an interesting opening, so that I think, “Yes, this one’s got the idea.”  Then halfway down that vital p.1 they can’t resist the urge to tell me all the background history of these characters and their situation. It’s known in the trade as an “information dump”.

 

There are two things seriously wrong with this. The initial momentum, the sense of the story leaping off the springboard, is lost. Stuff that has already happened has a second hand feel. It’s less gripping than action which unfolds before our eyes. We lose that all-important hunger to turn the page.

 

Secondly, the reader is not going to remember all this information when it is needed later on to make sense of the story which follows. Reading it cold, is rather like working your way through an encyclopaedia, rather than turning to the articles when you need them. It’s hard to remember information given without context.

 

So don’t tell us about a character until they enter the plot. Even then, reveal the interesting facts little by little. When you first meet someone in real life, they don’t immediately tell you their life-story. 

 

It’s the same with the background to the situation. The character whose narrative viewpoint we are sharing will know a great deal about what has gone before. But they won’t be consciously thinking about it in great detail. As the plot develops, things will trigger memories of relevant events in the past. Tell us them only when the right context arises.

 

As with every rule, there are exceptions. The most irresistible opening of a novel I’ve met is the first sentence of Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond:

 

"Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

 

 

How could you not read on?

There then follow pages of back story, but it is so entertainingly told that it is a delight to read in its own right. It’s certainly not the tedious "information dump".

This is what we should all be aiming at: writing which doesn’t just impart information but is spell-binding.

Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick. http://www.faysampson.co.uk

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Reader Comments:

Wonderful advice, Fay! Rose Macauley is a favorite of mine, but I've missed The Towers of Trebizond. I must read it. As if the camel weren't enough, the High Mass is an absolute zinger.
-Donna, March 14, 2011

That's really interesting, Fay. To hit the ground running is a good way to start, and I like the idea of starting part way into the action. However, a quiet opening can be very effective too. I think the main thing that draws a reader into a book is to centre it round a character. D'you know, this is so interesting, I think I might blog about it myself! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article.
-Dolores, March 14, 2011

Although I agree entirely with Fay, I think it does depend a bit on the genre--or subgenre. right now I'm readying one of Rhys Bowen's constable Evans series--a cozy set in Wales. She doesn't get to the main action until almost chapter 3. But I'm interested in the setting and the characters, and, like I say, it's a cozy. Does feel a teeny bit dated, though.
-Donna, March 14, 2011

Excellent post, Fay! I just forward it on to a writer who has a heckuva volcano on the first page, but then goes for character introduction. Just as you suggest, I think some tightening and cutting would keep things at a faster pace.


-jennymilch, March 14, 2011

I have to agree with that on some books. I read a New York Times bestseller
and his beginning was not good at all. I put the book down and I am very
disappointed because the subject matter of his story interested me a lot.


-Margaret, March 15, 2011

This is SO important, but recently I've noticed that publishers (yes, I mean big-name pubishers) don't seem to care about this anymore. I've just gone through a streak of books (thankfully I got them free for my Kindle through Amazon) which have COMPLETELY ignored this important fact.

The two that come to mind most not only didn't start with a hook to pull me in, but one rambled on and on and on about backstory. I finally gave up on both of them and will never pick them up. I was so disgusted with one of them that I wrote a review on Amazon and gave it a 1. Both of these were published recently by big-name Christian publishers. I am both shocked and dismayed to see this trend.


-Suzanne, March 15, 2011

This is really good. Let's hope some editors read it as well as many writers!
-Pen Wilcock, June 6, 2011

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