Tuesday, 13 January 2009


A good place to start. I know of few books that begin elsewhere. The hard part is: Where does your story start? Well, presuming research, characterisation, plot and structure have been mulled over aplenty, get straight in there. Too many stories (long and short) amble, opting for slumberous build ups, by which time half the readers are chewing through their wrists for distraction. An opening needs dramatic tension, a sense of conflict, so begin just before it. Or in the middle of it. The tension/conflict may not climax for several chapters, but draw the reader in, giving them some essence of the story from the off. Get your hands around their throats, so to speak. Subtly, of course.

And avoid too much expostition, too many characters and lengthy descriptions. You're trying to engage the reader, tease them along, plant seeds - some they're aware off, others not. One of the best ways to show and not tell is through dialogue, so reveal a voice or two early. William Trevor is a master of drawing a reader into a story, but (a lot) more of him later.

Whether you like McEwan or not, the opening chapter of Enduring Love is a brilliant example of how to set up dramatic tension. The reader is almost out of breath at its end, compelled to go on. Think of your favourite novels, then read their opening chapters/first lines. See what the author's trying to do. Avoid weather.

Caveat: such rules could and should be broken occasionally, if you're brave and good enough.


Tania Hershman said...

I must agree with you re: Ian McEwan, who I too used to love and who is now low down on my list (Chesil Beach???!$£). Enduring Love's opening chapter is one of the most stunning I have ever read and there are those who say it should have been a short story and that the rest of the book doesn't quite live up to the beginning. That is a danger, of course (says she who has never written a novel) - your opening is TOO good. What do you think?

TOM J VOWLER said...

Good to hear from you, Tania. Hope you're feeling a bit better.
I loved McEwan's earlier work (except for the Booker winning Amsterdam), and Atonement was wonderful (shame about the film). But Saturday annoyed me like no other book has. Its writing is often flawless, yet the sum of the parts amounts to little, for me. Struck me as so implausible, ridiculous, and I've rarely come across more annoying characters (I wanted the 'thug' to kill them at the end).
EL's opening as a short story - yes, I like that. The chapter is a good example, I think, of getting straight in there, no messing, but I probably prefer something more nuanced, brooding, subtle. I have no desire to go near Chesil Beach. The book, that is.

Anne Brooke said...

I have to agree (which is hugely unusual for me - should I go back on the drugs?...) - the first chapter of Enduring Love is the best first chapter in the history of the universe. I still remember exactly where I was when I read it (in my bedroom drying my hair) and I can still remember the telling-off I got for being late to work because I just had to finish the chapter. And then read it again.

But Chesil Beach? Saturday?? Lordy, someone pass me the bucket, and the editing pen - has McEwan been swopped with an alien since then? Sigh ...


TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks for stopping by, Anne. (The drugs don't work, apparently. They just make you worse.) I once did an entire essay on how awful Saturday is, despite its high regard in many circles. (McEwan is often labelled The Best We(?) Have)
My final, damning criticism - the 'bucket' moment as you say - was when the 'perfect' daughter cited Arnold's Dover Beach to the psychotic heavy, instantly disarming him of all murderous intent. Sigh, indeed.

Anne Brooke said...

Arrgghh, I know! Even thinking about that terrible scene now is making me come out in a rash. We the reading public should be saved from such horrors - isn't there a government directive or something??