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Friday 13 November 2009

Writing Guide-02 - Beginnings revisited

Last time, I covered beginnings for short stories. They are crucial, because every word has to count in a short story. With a novel, while there's more scope with more words, those first few paragraphs or pages still have to pull the reader in. The methods are no different to those suggested for a short story - create a mystery the reader wants to solve, pose a question that needs answering, immerse the reader in the narrator's or main character's world and mind...

Here are samples from my novels.


THE $300 MAN
‘$300 – that’ll do nicely!’ said Bert Granger as he finished thumbing through the billfold Corbin Molina had been encouraged to hand over. As added persuasion, Bert held a revolver in his other hand.

Here, I'm having fun with the modern phrasing of advertisers and shopkeepers. But there's an immediate threat posed to the main character.

James Thorp eased his sorrel horse to a halt on the outskirts of the small town of Bethesda Falls, which nestled at the base of the mountain’s foothills. He was dressed entirely in black. Black because he was in mourning. Mourning the men he had killed.

I'm not merely describing what Thorp wears, I'm saying that he doesn't relish killing. I'm also providing an image of him on the outskirts of the town where most of the action will take place, setting the scene.

When the stagecoach eased over the brow of the hard-packed road that ran between two massive boulders, the driver Alfred Boddam grinned. Mid-morning and, by God, they were almost two hours early. He gentled the four horses to a stop and applied the brake. One of the passengers enquired gruffly, ‘Driver, why have we stopped?’ But he paid him no mind. From the box he sat looking down over the wide lush valley, a hard callused hand rubbing his chin’s bristles as he admired the view. Nestling on the east of Clearwater Creek was his destination, the town of Bethesda Falls. He chewed his lip, recalling his last visit. Miss Kitty Riley had taken a shine to him with her winsome smile and this time around he fancied pursuing that fine shapely figure of womanhood.

Rather a long intro, but very visual. Alfred is a minor character who bookends the novel. It offers amorous hope for Alfred, so the reader might be wondering if he will get his girl. (The stage holdup happens very soon after this intro, by the way...)

The agent who called himself Mr. Swann entered the Queen’s Hotel bar at 2PM, just as he had promised. In my business I’d met a few spies and all of them were nondescript. After all, to be a good spy, you need to blend in, be unmemorable. Swann just didn’t fit that category, so I wondered if I was wasting my time on this mysterious appointment…

Chapter 1: August, 1968
Six Soviet officers stood on the balcony overlooking St. Wenceslas Square and the definition through the sniper-scope was so good that Tana Standish could detect the black-heads round their noses and the blood-shot eyes that testified to late-night celebrating with alcohol. She had ten 7.5mm rounds, more than enough to kill all of them.

The books in the Tana Standish series always begin with me receiving the latest secret manuscript from an agent. A bit flippant beginning, but also posing a question about the mysterious Mr Swann.

So, chapter one of each of the three Tana Standish novels features Tana or someone else viewing a target through a sniper's scope (see below). But each poses different questions.

We were in our usual booth, where we couldn’t be overheard. ‘We can’t keep on meeting like this,’ I said.

Chapter 1: Friday, September 8

Dressed in his sinister black SAVAK uniform, Captain Hassan Mokhtarian looked every inch the evil man he was. A man who deserved to die. Tana Standish could see him quite clearly through the telescopic sight, even making allowances for the poor light as dusk descended over Tehran and the city’s surrounding mountains, turning the overshadowing snow-capped cone of Mount Damavand a delicate shade of mauve. At least today the city smog didn’t obscure the peak of the volcano which still belched out sulphurous fumes from time to time and killed the odd stray sheep.

Another hosepipe ban loomed. Still, I was glad to be back in stifling grime- and crime-ridden London, even if sweat pooled in the small of my back. Sweat that caused my scars – and there were plenty – to itch.

We know from the blurb that the narrator is a nun who used to be a cop. We're left wondering after this brief intro - why does she have 'plenty' of scars? We know it's London, too.

So, try to create an intriguing or interesting beginning, it just might pull your reader and publisher into your story.


Laurie Powers said...

I think these are terrific tips, Nik. Keep them coming - it just might get me back into writing fiction.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks, Laurie. Upcoming, a review of a Donald Maass guidebook.