STRUCTURE AND THE NOVEL- The First 50 Pages

by Susan Mary Malone

We talked before about a novel’s opening line, and how important getting it just right is.

So, now let’s say you’ve written that bang up first line, and now let’s focus on the rest of the book’s beginning-the first fifty pages.

Isn’t that just the hardest part? I hear from so many writers struggling with where to start, how much to convey up front, and how active page one needs to be, etc., etc. And the answers vary-a lot. Depending upon in what genre you’re writing, for one thing. A Thriller must begin very differently from a Western or Category Romance or even a Cozy Mystery. But as far as novel development is concerned, the inherent factors remain the same.

The best way to begin a novel is just to begin it. In other words, quit obsessing and write. If you’re serious about the process, no one will ever see the first draft anyway. And even if you’re of the sort who specifically outlines from alpha to omega, much will change once you get to that initial “The End.” At which point, you’ll always go into revisions by rewriting the beginning. Often, many times.

All right, so the original creation process is finished, and you’re into revisions – the actual book editing. What do you want to accomplish with your opening? HOW you do this, again, will vary by genre. But WHAT you want to get done in the beginning crosses them all.

By far the biggest glitch I see is that the novel really begins about fifty pages in. Writers, especially before finding their sea legs (no matter how long they’ve been at it-learning to write is not a matter of time so much as it is of willingness, dedication, and application), ramble along for a good way before finding the track of their stories. Even seasoned writers do this, especially those who write from “discovery”-not knowing exactly how to get where they’re going until it opens before them. The difference is, professionals then go back to cut and begin again, and aren’t afraid of killing their own words to do so. Your editing arm will learn to point out where the pacing lags, or how much ancillary material needs slicing because much of that was necessary for you, the writer, to know, but not for the reader. Remember: Your reader is trusting you to convey to him ONLY those things that pertain to these specific characters in this specific story. The rest is just background material for you, the book author (and is merely noise for the reader).

The next problem I see has to do with the book’s hook. Now, entire volumes have been published regarding this subject, so I’m not going to delve into it deeply. In fact, I really believe too much has been made of it, in that now writers are so sensitive to setting hooks that their books’ beginnings are often contrived. Settle down here. Yeah, your book needs a good hook, which is no more than a reason for me to keep reading. And yeah, I need a sense of where the book is heading and who the main folks are from the get go. But I don’t need a crash course in the characters’ histories, or an intricate foreknowledge of what’s to come. That produces the opposite effect of what you seek – turning off your reader with so much detail that he spits out your lure and swims back into the bookstore’s sea.

A hook can be nothing more than a quirky character about whom I want to know more (unless, of course, this is a Suspense Thriller!). Or a bizarre event that tweaks my interest. And yeah, it needs to come in early enough to catch my curiosity so I keep going. Rule of Thumb in Murder Mysteries is that the killing should occur on page one. If you can’t hook ’em with some sort of unique slaying, you need to pick another genre in which to write. In all categories of Romance, my heart should stir in Chapter One. In Mainstream, I should find a character compelling enough to cause me to want more. And in Literary, the writing needs to take my breath – at least for moments, on page one.

My very favorite opening to any book goes thusly:
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of the great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

I would have followed that author to the ends of the Earth. And did.

Here as well is where you establish the Protagonist – the person with whom your reader is to travel the course of this novel. And, you must give a sense of his/her conflicts – even if the catalyst for the conflict (be it man or beast, internal or external, supernatural or drought) isn’t itself in evidence. The point of the conflict on the main character is the important thing, not the conflict itself. We have to move our hero out of his comfort zone – to begin the novel.

You must also firmly set the tone. If this is to be a Murder Mystery of some sort, someone gets killed straight out of the gate, thereby setting an ominous tone (if it’s well done). If the book’s a Literary one, the writing itself must effect the resonance that you seek.

On page one, we must find the Story Question, which we’ll talk about in the next installment of Structure. Because that Question will weave through each and every scene of your book.

Yep, a book’s beginning is tough to get right. But once you do, your reader has bought a ticket to ride your train – the first obstacle to overcome!