The opening of your novel is a promise

A post by Donald Maass at Writer Unboxed: Promise Words

A fairly common topic when thinking about writing! But it’s true, the opening of your novel always constitutes a promise to your readers. What does Donald Maass — I’m sure many of you know he’s a famous agent and also an author himself — what does he have to say about this?

Have you ever read a few lines of a novel and put it straight back onto the bookstore shelf? It’s not your thing. But wait…how do you know? You could be wrong. Nevertheless, there are certain words on that opening page that send signals that light you up, turn you off or, if nothing else, cause you to judge a tale’s nature and relative appeal. Certain words tell you what to expect. Those words are what I call a novel’s promise words.

Maass does exactly what I would do: looks at actual novels rather than offering advice out of context.

Here’s a list of promise words from one opening: Grief…solitary…islands…graves…alone…avoid…waving from a distance…hurrying away…ghosts exist…the ghost of myself…

What kind of story do you expect, Maass asks.

What kind of novel do you think that is going to be? A rom-com? Hardly. A ghost story? A sad story? A memory piece? What kind of protagonist will we meet? The life of the party? Um, no. The words suggest it will be a main character who is grieving, solitary, alone.Do you agree? The impression that you’ve already formed sets your expectations for the novel. You know what kind of experience you’re in for. It’s either an experience that you want for your weekend reading or one that you’re going to return to the bookstore shelf. All on the basis of a few words.

Three more examples at the linked post. Each time, Maass gives the “promise words” and then, later, provides the full opening. This is a good, clever way to illustrate his point! Great idea, good post, definitely click through if you’re interested in this topic. Here’s the full opening of the one above:

The first list of promise words is from Greg Iles’s Mississippi Blood (2017), the third of his Natchez Burning trilogy, concerning the (now) mayor of Natchez, Penn Cage, who has a family in peril, a father on trial, and a dark history with a violent splinter group of the KKK called the Double Eagles.  Here’s the full opening:

Grief is the most solitary emotion; it makes islands of us all.

I’ve spent a lot of time visiting graves over the past few weeks.  Sometimes with Annie, but mostly alone.  The people who see me there give me a wide berth.  I’m not sure why.  For thirty miles around, almost everyone knows me, Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi.  When they avoid me—waving from a distance, if at all, then hurrying on their way—I sometimes wonder if I have taken on the mantle of death.  Jewel Washington, the county coroner and a true friend, pulled me aside in City Hall last week and told me I look like living proof that ghosts exist.  Maybe they do.  Since Caitlin died, I have felt nothing more than the ghost of myself.

Perhaps that’s why I spend so much time visiting graves.

I agree that the words Maass pulled out constitute an accurate hint about the opening and about what kind of story this is likely to be.

Peril. Tragedy. Enchantment. Delight. Most of the openings I’ve cited could have been written plainly. Just the plot, ma’am. But they’re not written that way. The words are carefully, or at least intuitively, chosen to create a specific effect: promise. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s about death. Or life. You will feel fear. Or hope. Or both. 

Promise words aren’t a hook, a story question, narrative voice, not exactly, nor any other thing that might be present on a first page. Promise words are an invocation. They fix our minds and hearts for a story, the specific story that will follow. They create in us expectation. We’re living the story already. It’s writing itself in our imaginations. The story, even now, is becoming ours.

Good post!

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5 thoughts on “The opening of your novel is a promise”

  1. Hmmm … I saw this not long after I saw your newsletter with the first chapter + of TASMAKAT, so I went back to that to see what it was promising that I am so anxious to have fulfilled.

    It’s promising travel and danger in the first paragraph (day’s ride, might have died). The second paragraph is making the setting more vivid and connecting the new book to TARASHANA and TANO for those who are already invested in the series. “Land of the shades” and, from the first paragraph, “my mother’s camp” are placing us in a culture that is not one we are familiar with. The mention of Ugaro and Lau in the third paragraph tells us that our party represents more than one culture and that those differences are probably significant (the Lau not knowing how to look at the land). At the mention of Aras’s sorcery in paragraph 5 we can be sure that this is fantasy and not something historical/anthropological.

    This is an interesting way of looking at things that are normally not conscious for me.

    Knowledge of the author plays into my reaction. Not just the type of book they normally write, although that too, but that there are some authors where I like some but not all of their books, and others where I trust them to lead me somewhere worthwhile even if the early indicators are that the book might not be my cup of tea.

  2. OtterB, no question, knowledge of the author and what they’ve done with previous books is a huge factor, bigger than any other factor. I’m not sure there are any authors who have written over ten novels where I’ve liked ALL their books. There are quite a few where I’ve loved such a preponderance that I’ll take a chance on anything they write.

    I also thought of trying this with the Tuyo series. For TUYO itself,

    dying fire, abandoned camp, great forest winter country, terrible death, my death, tall horse, afraid, fire burned low, my brother, defeated warriors, embers, thinking about nothing, fire burned out

    Aaah! This looks so grim!

    I keep seeing pairs of words, I notice, rather than single words. It’s interesting that the earliest signals are all defeat and fear and loss. Wow. That has to be reoriented quickly to a much less grim situation or else the reader may be pushed away really hard. That reorientation doesn’t really happen all that fast. Not sure how fast it becomes obvious that Aras isn’t going to kill Ryo. Sooner than Ryo realizes it, or accepts it, but maybe not that much sooner.

  3. I am not a fan of grim books. The main thing that kept the opening of Tuyo from being too grim for me was Ryo’s voice, most clearly beginning at the point where he thinks about facing away from the Lau being cowardice but facing away from the trail of his brother leaving possibly also being cowardice, but he can only face one way, so he picks one. This is someone who cares about doing things right and thinks about those things, then acts. Also, very few authors start a book in 1st person POV of someone who is going to die soon (prologue, perhaps, Chapter 1, no), so it seemed safe to expect that he was in a danger he would survive and then I wanted to know how. :-)

  4. Good point about seldom starting in first person in chapter one if the character is going to die! Which will make me DNF a book immediately, probably one big reason authors seldom do that! It’s interesting to know what detail caught you and moved you forward into the opening scene. I mean, that is REALLY interesting. Now I want a poll about that for various books, including TUYO.

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