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Where to Begin?

The Rich Writer: Where to Begin?

The Rich Writer

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

Monday, August 31, 2009

Where to Begin?

I had a great conversation with the members of my critique group last Friday about where my new novel should begin. One member, a multi-published fantasy author, said I was beginning the story too soon, basically giving backstory. A fantasy/sci-fi novel, she said, needs to have a "Call to Action" by the end of the first chapter. We brainstormed and came up with a couple compelling and exciting twists that would bring action in the opening.

But once home, I began to question whether action DOES belong in my opening chapter. So I decided to do a little survey, to see where the “call to action” occurs in a number of current YA novels. Here’s what I found:

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Shrinking Violet, by Danielle Joseph is a contemporary YA novel. By the end of chapter 1, the reader knows that Teresa is painfully shy, that she fantasizes about being the DJ “Sweet T,” and that a DJ spot just opened at her stepdad’s radio station—but she’s too scared to volunteer.

Call to Action? I’d say no. The groundwork has been laid, but Teresa is not FORCED to act. And she doesn’t—yet.

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M.E. Breen’s Darkwood is a YA fantasy. By the end of chapter 1, the main character (Annie) has overheard her aunt and uncle planning to sell her to the Drop, where she fully expects to die.

Call to Action? Yep. Stay and get sent to certain death versus flee into the dangerous darkness and face unknown dangers.  Annie has to make a choice.

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Need, by Carrie Jones is another YA fantasy, but this is one of those “real world” fantasies that starts in the here-and-now. For the first few chapters, the readers gets hints of other, but no clear portrayal of the paranormal or fantastical.

Call to Action? Not so much. By the end of chapter one, the reader knows about Zara’s troubled past and that she’s crushed by her father’s recent death. We also know that her mother is worried about her and has sent her to Maine to stay with her grandmother. We get one hint of the supernatural: a weird-looking guy who might or might not be stalking her.

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In R.A. Nelson’s contemporary YA Breathe My Name, the first chapter sets the stage for the story ahead: Frances lives with nightmares, sleeplessness, and stress because deep down she fears the return of her real mother.

Call to Action? Nope, this takes place a few chapters down the road, when the lawyer arrives with a letter from her biological mother.

So…what have I learned from all this?

  1. That a book’s opening—as we all know—is VERY important. It has to hook the reader and set the stage for the rest of the story.
  2. BUT—that doesn’t mean that the first chapter HAS to include the actual “call to action.” Especially when plot and character are closely intertwined, it makes sense to introduce the main character and her underlying problem in the opening chapter.
  3. In straight fantasy, it seems more common to introduce the call to action in chapter 1; in contemporary fiction, not as much.
  4. Some books cross genres—like Need and Twilight. These books seem more likely to break the “rule” about introducing the call to action in chapter 1.

4 Comments:

At August 31, 2009 at 8:29 PM , Blogger Yat-Yee said...

Anytime we try to distill something as complex as what engages our readers to a simple one-liner, such as "you must have a call to action by the end of chapter 1" we run the risk of excluding a lot. I think you're so right in trying to look for different ways that authors present their stories. I know you'll find one that works for you, with your well-honed instincts and perseverance.

 
At September 1, 2009 at 6:52 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

That's so true! And yet, the rules exist for a reason, so if I'm going to break one, I like to do it intentionally :). This has been a really beneficial exercise. By looking only at the beginnings of books, I get to see how various authors introduce character, set the stage for the story, touch on theme and important clues--all in one tightly-wrapped package. This was an impressive lineup of books to study, too! Several of them are staying on my desk for inspiration....

 
At September 1, 2009 at 9:02 AM , Blogger Tia Nevitt said...

I've also read that you need to begin the story at the point of change. In one of my novels, it's so action-packed that I have trouble determining which point of change upon which to start. I have had less trouble with my other novels. One starts at a divorce, one starts when a guy meets an angel, and one starts at the beginning of a most road trop.

In your census of novels, did each begin at a point of change? Does yours?

It's not always helpful to think of the classics, but in Jane Austen's case, she started Pride and Prejudice at a point in change--when Bingley moved into Netherfield. But none of the characters have any particular call to action for quite a while.

Which only proves that when it comes to writing, rules are not really rules. They are suggestions.

 
At September 2, 2009 at 7:03 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Tia,

I like that way of thinking about it: begin at the point of change. I'd say that all of the novels above began at a point of change except for Breathe My Name. My novel--both the original and new beginning--definitely begins at a point of change, altho you could argue about whether there's an immediate call to action.

I think the new opening is stronger than the original, tho, so I'm happy!

 

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