One of the most annoying facts about inexperienced novelists is that they often will open their novels with tons of backstory about some character or place. The novel might begin with something like “The war was ongoing” or “this is the reason these two people did not get along with one another” or some other long explanation.
The truth is that we live in an era where people who read will put a book down if it is not grabbing them by the brain and the heart after the first few pages. I try to do this with every book I write. Here is the opening paragraph of my latest novel This Broken Earth, Book 1: The U.S. of After:
As darkness blanketed the world, Clayton Delroy woke feeling something cold pressed against his nose only to realize it was the gun-powdery end of a black shotgun barrel. He was being robbed again. Before being shaken out of his R.E.M state, Clayton probably dreamed of actually eating something that was not canned. I can only speculate about his dreams. I cannot read minds. From his current expression I surmised that he was feeling fear or maybe loathing or possibly annoyance.
1. Save the Backstory for Later – One of the worst things a writer can do to a reader is bore them with mounds of back story before ever getting into characterization or plotting. I do not tell the reader anything at all about my main character in the above paragraph. The only thing we know about Clayton Delroy is that possibly this is not the first time he has been robbed, he was trying to get some sleep, and either these two characters are homeless or the world has gone sour. We also know about another character, the narrator, but not really anything about him at all.
2. Peril – Actually, the most effective way to grab a reader at the outset is to introduce some type of peril either internally or externally. I have done both of these in this opening paragraph and it is intentional. Not only do we have the “gun-powdery end of a black shotgun barrel” but he is “being robbed again”. If you are not an action story novelist like me and write romance or another more down to earth genre, begin your novel with an argument or at least with some kind of conflict. The reader will want to read on at least to find out if it is resolved and then you will have them hooked.
3. Try a Vague Description…But Not Too Vague – One of my favorite poets is Elizabeth Bishop. This wonderful wordsmith would spend forever practicing writing techniques that may have never made it to the published poem, but ended up being published eventually in her collected works. She once wrote a poem entitled “12 O’Clock News” (1976), which is more of a prose poem or an exercise in vague description without being too vague. Here is an excerpt she wrote about an ash tray on her desk:
From our superior vantage point, we can clearly see into a sort of dugout, possibly a shell crater, a “nest” of soldiers. They lie heaped together, wearing the camouflage “battle dress” intended for “winter warfare.” They are in hideously contorted positions, all dead. We can make out at least eight bodies. These uniforms were designed to be used in guerilla warfare on the country’s only snow-covered mountain peak. The fact that these poor soldiers are wearing them here, on the plain, gives further proof, if proof were necessary, either of the childishness and hopeless impracticality of this inscrutable people, our opponents, or of the sad corruption of their leaders.
If we describe the opening scene in this way, we do not give too much away, but we have peaked the interest of the reader who wants to know the greater details of the story because we have caused a bit of mystery as to what scene is being described.
What are some methods that you use to open a novel or “show” and not “tell”? Post your comments below.