Set the scene or dive in?

A Q & A at Janet Reid’s blog.

Here’s part of the question:

One school of thought says this: Ground the reader in your protagonist’s ordinary world. Then, get your reader to care about your protagonist. Because if they don’t care about your protagonist, then they won’t care when some inciting incident occurs to upset their ordinary world. After your reader is grounded in the ordinary world, they’ve met and liked your protagonist … THEN the inciting incident occurs that obliterates the ordinary world and your protagonist is given a challenge that they will either accept or refuse.

A second school of thought says: Open with action. Pull the reader in immediately. Why wait until Page 3 to deliver an inciting incident when you can do it in the first page, first paragraph, first sentence? Hit them over the head from the first word and don’t let up until they can’t put the book down anymore because they’re invested in your character.

That is a well-written question. I mean, I think both positions are well-expressed. Janet Reid’s answer to this question is the same as mine would be: it depends, do something that works.

She doesn’t add something I think is true: that when you’re looking at workshop entries, they often fail because they’re trying too hard to go with School Number 2. This is just a side note, though. What I want to mention is that the three novel beginnings Janet uses to illustrate her point — that it depends and you should do something that works — are great examples. I haven’t read any of these books, which are, let me see —

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, which starts with pure background.

Black Mountain by Laird Barron, which starts with the protagonist.

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett, in which we see nothing of the background or the character, but nevertheless the words on the page hold our interest.

Of the three, the one that appeals to me most is the one by Barron. I backed up to the first book (Black Mountain is the second) and picked up a sample to look at when I am in the mood for a thriller. The one that appeals to me least (by a mile) is the one by Follett, because, well, here is the first bit:

The last camel collapsed at noon.

It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.

The protagonist then kicks and stabs the camel to try to make it get up, and poof, just like that, I’m done. Thanks for inserting this scene right up front so I know I will hate this book and don’t have to read any further; that’s a real time saver.

Anyway, it IS a good beginning in the sense of effective and evocative and making (some other) readers want to turn the pages.

As you know, I just read Network Effect and that was great, but it’s not a good choice if you want to talk about beginnings because (a) series book, and (b) imo the parenthetical notes are in fact a little overdone in the beginning of this one.

However, I did just start another novel and I thought it was a great example of a quiet but compelling beginning. I’ll post about that later.

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5 thoughts on “Set the scene or dive in?”

  1. I prefer an entry that’s got some action and slips in background as we go. But if you can hook me by my curiosity, I’ll put up with more background.

    I think the beginning of Swordheart is a great example: Halla had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.

  2. It’s so very difficult to catch a reader with anything when the reader knows NOTHING.

  3. Or… On the one hand, we find the protagonist out collecting wild herbs, in her usual manner…
    and on the other, we find the protagonist collecting books in the middle of a hostile land of fire.

  4. And hopefully both openings were catchy. Nothing like a griffin flying overhead to introduce the conflict that will drive the story, I always say.

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