Here’s a post from Jane Friedman’s blog: The Secret Ingredient of Successful Openings
It turns out that this post is about the importance of establishing your protagonist right off the bat:
There’s something it took me years as an editor to figure out: many of the most common problems novelists face with their stories appear to be issues with plot but in fact are issues with character. Openings that don’t quite work are a good example. The conventional wisdom on the opening of a novel tells us that it must have:
- A clear point of view
- A compelling voice
- Compelling characters
- Specific details
- Tension of some type
That’s all excellent advice. The only problem is, when writers think of “tension of some type,” they tend to think of external trouble—say, a car crash, or the protagonist being fired from her job. This type of conflict might compel the reader’s attention for a few pages, but what really sucks us in—and what really makes agents and acquisitions editors sit up and take notice—is internal trouble, because it’s trouble of this type that signals the beginning of a character arc. …
In other words, the author of this post feels that writers too often ignore the first three points to focus on the last couple. I will add, the post now goes into the protagonist’s “internal wound” — Some problem on the inside that, by the end of the story, they’re going to overcome—or, perhaps, tragically fail to. That makes this post seem very much oriented toward Romance. Of course if there is any kind of character arc at all, then the protagonist is going to grow and change in some way and probably, yes, overcome some kind of internal issue. (If they’re going to fail, they’re a tragic hero and I’m not interested in that story.) I do like that this post adds, The exception to this rule is mysteries and thrillers—genres in which character arc isn’t a requirement. I think that’s mainly series mysteries. Probably thrillers more often have distinct character arc, though I agree, maybe not all the time.
[A]t the beginning of the story, the protagonist herself can’t see what her internal problem is—she doesn’t even know she has one. … So how do you make sure the reader gets it, in those all-important opening pages, even if your protagonist doesn’t? Here are three effective strategies:
— Misgivings about whatever is going on in the opening scene. Things like doubts about the marriage as she walks toward the altar.
— Someone else expresses misgivings. Stars in her eyes, but her best friend is murmuring doubtfully, “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
— Self-generated trouble. And here, I have to immediately pause to say, Ugh, no, please don’t. Sounds like memoir or literary, and it definitely sounds like your protagonist is a jerk, incompetent, or both. That’s such a turnoff! You start the opening of your novel by having your protagonist do something self-defeating and I’m out of there. Watching someone screw up their life for three hundred pages? Absolutely not, even if they’re going to get it together eventually.
Okay, so, overall the idea that your protagonist might express internal tension in some manner during the opening is fine. Suggesting that you may want to hint at the character arc right from the beginning is fine. Pointing out that this can be part of making your protagonist compelling is fine. However, I feel compelled at this point to point to an example of a book that breaks all sorts of rules about how to handle openings.
Here, take a look at a tension-free opening:
“It isn’t a question of actually believing the teachings,” said Elsa, drilling two neat holes in the sand with the heels of her shoes. “It’s whether or not they believe in the authenticity of the manuscript, that’s all.”
“Gosh, you’d better hope that’s all,” said Harriet cheerfully. “It would be so tedious for you, wouldn’t it, to have your research interrupted every so often by cultists wanting to worship the thing you were studying? In my department, now, we don’t have such problems.”
“Good heavens, Harriet — you study money! All sorts of people worship that!”
“Oh, true. Have a grape while I consider a suitable riposte.” Harriet proffered the tin of green grapes that had been nestled on the blanket beside her.
They were seated in the shade of a large blue sun-umbrella — Harriet’s property, like the blanket and the grapes and the vacuum flask of iced tea and the basket it had all been packed in. They had been there since noon; they had moved the umbrella several times to adjust their pool of shade, and the tea was nearly finished. The day had become blazingly hot, the sky arcing blue-white out over the lake, the water flashing in the sun. Because it was a weekday, the beach was not crowded. A few young people in bathing costumes ran or strolled, according to their preference; a few mothers lay in beach chairs while their children squatted over sandcastles by the shoreline. Elsa and Harriet sat under their umbrella with their books.
Harriet was the golden-haired, rosy, curvaceous one, radiant in a red bathing costume. Elsa was willowy and long-legged — or depending on her mood, tall and thin. She wore her much paler hair tightly plaited and pinned up. The black bathing costume she wore was the first one she had ever owned, this trip to the beach only her second since coming to Toronto four years ago. It was late August; the academic term of 1925-1926 would not start for another two weeks. It was a period of waiting, of planning and anticipation. The hot, heavy summer air seemed to Elsa to be telling her to go slowly, not to be so eager to rush onward to the new school year. It was an irresistible suggestion, but she chafed at it.
There we go: zero tension and, for a special bonus, plenty of telling-not-showing. Who recognizes this? This is From All False Doctrine by Alice Degan, which was one of my very favorite books from 2020. Here is my review. You may recall that I described it this way: “From All False Doctrine is sort of like a cross between a Wodehouse novel and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. But with demonology.” The author pulls off this story — including the opening — by throwing away all sorts of advice. Opening with low tension, opening with dialogue, opening with tons of telling-not-showing, but it’s all fine! It works great! I was hooked from the first pages of this quiet opening and, as I say, loved it and placed it as one of my top reads for the year.
What this opening does do is establish the protagonist(s). There are four in this story, with Elsa being primary, as is implied by giving her the first line. The opening chapter lays groundwork — subtly — for the central problem of the story, but basically this opening is all about establishing Elsa and the other three protagonists.
From this I will tentatively conclude that the fundamental necessity for the opening of a novel is to establish the protagonist and place the protagonist in the setting. Everything else — even tension, both internal and external — is distinctly secondary. This may be true even if the heart of the novel is the character arc of the protagonist, which is the case for From All False Doctrine. The beginning of Elsa’s character arc is in fact signaled in the first chapter, even in the first line, but it’s subtle. I don’t think the reader can see it until much later.