We start off with advice from author Zoë Sharp on how to decide what you are going to write.
It sounds like an obvious question, but few books begin at the beginning of the story, despite what you’ve been told about needing a beginning a middle and an end.
In fact, most opening scenes are taken from a strategic midway point in the story itself. Reminds me of doing Simulated Casualty exercises years ago. To prepare for dealing with an emergency situation a group of us were taken to a closed door and given a few brief explanatory words by an instructor.“There’s been an explosion. You’re first on scene. Sharp, you’re in charge. Get in there and deal with it.”
Beyond that, what we found when we opened the door was a complete surprise. We were given seconds to take stock, to triage casualties, to quell the panic and get the situation under control. And afterwards the sneaky observers would play back the footage from hidden video cameras and critique our performance, second by second.
The opening chapter of your crime novel, be it mystery or thriller-orientated, is very much like presenting the reader with a Sim-Cas exercise.
Doesn’t matter if they open the door and find themselves in the middle of an Edwardian house party, a fire-fight, a moorland crime scene, or a dark alley at night with footsteps echoing behind them. Whatever your choice of opening scene, they have to be there and be gripped and engaged by it right away if you’re going to keep them turning the pages at the end of chapter one.
Some people try too hard for a shock opening line, something so bizarre that it grabs too hard from the outset. But the danger is that your reader will take one peek round the door jamb and decline to step inside at all.
A nice example of the plain silly:
At one US convention audience members were invited to jot down opening lines for the moderator, who then asked panellists to pick one out of a hat at random and make up a story on the spot to go with it.
The last of these read:
‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’
The audience member who wrote that? Me.
The unlucky author who picked it out of the hat? Lee Child.
And his first words? “Well, I don’t think this will be the opening of her next novel, but …”
The point is, you don’t need an overly dramatic opening – especially if the rest of the story can’t possibly live up to it. An apparently impossible premise is terrific, but only if you have an equally possible means of escape, otherwise sooner or later the reader will feel cheated.
I choose my own jumping-off point for the story by a very simple means. I write my own jacket or flap copy before I start. Different from cover blurbs saying how wonderful you are, this is the wording on the inside flap of the hardcover or the back of the paperback. It gives your reader a brief, exciting précis of the plot, the key themes of the book, and an idea of the conflicts facing your main character.
What does your hero(ine) want/need and how badly do they want it?
What’s stopping them achieving their goal?
What are they most afraid of – what’s at stake?
But for me the main thing the flap copy does is set up the starting point of the book and that in itself gives me a ballpark idea of when and where I need to open the door for the reader and invite them to step into my imagination.
After all, if the jacket copy tells the reader that the hero is struggling to uncover the identity of a mysteriously beautiful Mossad agent, what do you gain from having the hero fail to work out who she is until three-quarters of the way through the book?
The jacket copy of Stephen Leather’s The Chinaman tells us of a man who seeks revenge after his family fall victim to an IRA bomb attack. The first chapter starts seconds after the explosion. After all, the reader already knows what happened. Stephen’s approach is simply, why delay getting there?
In the past I’ve gone back and cut out the first couple of chapters of a WIP altogether because I realised it took me that long to get into my stride. To reach the doorway where the reader was already waiting for me.
But, one last thought to leave you with. Rules are there to be broken. If you come up with a great idea that goes against everything you’ve been told by others, but you think you can make it work, go for it. Otherwise we’re all just drones and clones.
Good luck – and have a blast!
You can find out more about Zoë and her books on her website: www.zoesharp.com
Right, you’ve got the plot sorted out – you know what is going to happen. Which is fine – but won’t help, if no-one gets beyond chapter one. Here is Award winning author, Robert Goddard’s advice on ensuring your reader wants to turn the page at the end of those first three thousand words.
Storytelling probably started as entertainment in prehistoric times for those long dark evenings in the cave. The first storytellers would have had the luxury of a captive audience. So, never let anyone tell you there were no luxuries in those days. But it’s one you don’t have, I’m afraid. Start with as big a bang or as bloody a slaying as you like, but remember: there has to be more to the story than that for the reader to want to stick with you into chapter two and beyond.
That’s why I’d suggest going easy on the murder and mayhem in chapter one. Pull the reader in slowly but seductively, with tantalizing atmosphere and enigmatic characterization. If there’s a first person narrator, are they to be trusted? We shouldn’t really know that at the outset. If it’s third person, set the scene calmly but mysteriously. The reader wants to be intrigued, not verbally whacked over the head.
If you look at the start of any of my novels, you’ll see I’m aiming for the optimum point of entry into the story: the place where the reader and the central character or characters are equally uncertain about what might be about to follow. There is resonance between the plot and their own lives. This not only feels like the start, it really and naturally is.
The surprise – the cliffhanger, the outbreak of violence, the pulling of the rug from beneath our characters’ feet – is in fact the ideal way to conclude chapter one. That is what will make the reader want – need – to carry on. It doesn’t have to be anything overtly dramatic. It can be just that little word or action that tells them all is not what it seems – not safe, not orderly and certainly not predictable.
Some writers try to solve the problem of setting the scene by beginning with a high octane set-piece, then (usually in our problematic chapter two) filling in the background by means of that ploy I would urge you to handle very carefully: the flashback. The reader wants to get on with the story (we hope). Making them trawl through events that have gone before can easily backfire. It can work and when it does it works wonderfully. But it can also fasten a ball and chain to the reader’s feet, with disastrous consequences. And by disastrous I mean they stop reading.
But how are we to introduce vital information from the characters’ pasts without flashback? This can be done carefully and selectively as the story unfolds. There will be an incident that naturally reminds someone of… There will be a need to explain what happened years before to someone who doesn’t know… There will be a moment in the telling of the story to deploy that crucial fact and you will recognize it when it comes… In other words, you’re not forcing the pace. You’re letting the story run itself.
Which brings us back to the beginning and the thorny issue of how to make it sufficiently gripping to carry the reader’s interest through to later ever more exciting turns in the plot. You must learn to trust your instinct on this. You’re a reader as well as a writer. Does your story make you want to carry on with it?
Of course, you can also study other writers’ techniques – the bad as well as the good. For the bad, I’ll leave you to make your own mind up. For the good, well, you can’t better the writer who kicked the whole thing off. Victorians would have called crime fiction detective novels and the very first one is said to be The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868. Take a look. Make allowances for the more discursive style of a mid-Victorian writer. But note the vigour and pace of the storytelling. Admire and learn. Then take a look at his earlier The Woman in White, every bit a crime novel in its own way and surely his masterpiece. Admire and learn some more.
Collins, like all his contemporaries, wrote for serial publication. That was a hard but valuable discipline. Try to pretend you’re doing it too, as in a sense you are. The reader must be made to want the next instalment. That’s why they turn the page. That’s what leads them to chapter two and all the chapters after. You know what’s coming. They don’t. Spill the secrets slowly. Then you’ll have them eating out of your hand.
Good luck. And enjoy your writing. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun for you as well as the reader.
Robert is the author of over twenty books which have all appeared in the Sunday Times Top Ten Best-seller lists. His latest book, Blood Count, has just been released in paperback. For more information to go: www.robertgoddardbooks.co.uk
Now for the Good News: Over the past fortnight, we heard from Annie Hauxwell who was short-listed last year with her entry A Vicious Indulgence. Following our circulation of the short-listed entries, Annie was signed up by an agent who subsequently sold her book to Penguin Australia, William Heinemann (UK), and Blanlavet (Germany). I’m pleased to say that Annie’s book, now retitled In Her Blood will be published in the UK and Australia in 2012.
We then heard from Alan Carter, another Australian entrant, who was short-listed in 2010 with his entry Chinese Whispers. If you were receiving these bulletins last year, you’ll know that Alan’s book was subsequently published as Prime Cut. We were thrilled to hear that Prime Cut has just won the Ned Kelly Prize for the Best First Fiction 2011 (the Australian equivalent of The Daggers). Many congratulations to Alan.
Previous winners: Don’t forget you can read the previous winning stories on our website. Just go to the Debut Page and click on the ‘year’ buttons on the right hand side. You’ll be taken to a page with details of that year’s winner and find a link on the page that will allow you to download the winning story. By all means study them and try to work out what it was that appealed to the judges – but please don’t copy them. The last thing the judges want to read is a clone of a previous winning entry. Be your own original self.