Smooth Beginnings

by Marg McAlister


Beginnings are difficult. Beginnings, in fact, are probably the most re-written part of a manuscript. A lot of writers plunge into a novel knowing perfectly well that they'll come back and rewrite their first chapter when they've finished their novel. Why do they do this? Several reasons:

  • by then they feel much more at home with their characters and the story. They are far more able to resist the temptation to tell the reader everything in the first two pages.
  • by the ending they can 'see' the overall shape of the novel so much more clearly. It's easier to go in and fix pacing and the gradual release of information.

One of the very best ways for any writer to learn the craft is to analyse the work of published writers. In the excerpt that follows from Henry Porter's A SPY'S LIFE, you will see very clearly how he hooks his readers by arousing their curiosity. Rather than 'telling' readers what is going on, he lets them find out through the main character's thoughts and actions. When you read on, note the following things:

  • How the author gets deep inside his character's mind so the reader closely identifies with his plight.
  • How the reader finds out what has happened by following THE CHARACTER'S thought processes as he puts it all together.

Beginning of Excerpt.

Chapter 1: The East River
A lip of ice protruded from the bank just in front of his face. It was no more than three feet away and he could see it with absolute clarity in the light that was coming from behind him. He contemplated the ice through the mist of his breath, noticing the lines that ran around its edge like tree rings. He understood they were formed when the tide lapped its underside, adding a little to the surface, then receded, leaving it hanging over the mud. He was groggy, but his powers of reason were working. That was good.
Harland moved his head a little and listened. There was a ringing inside his ears but he could hear the slap of the water and the agitated clicking of dead reeds somewhere off to his left. Beyond these there was a commotion - sirens and the noise of a helicopter. The light didn't allow him to see how he was trapped, but he felt something heavy pinning him down from behind and he knew that his legs were bent backwards because the muscles in his groin and on the tops of his thighs were burning with pain. The rest of him was numb. He reckoned he must have been there for some time.
He pulled at his arms which had been plunged vertically into the mud. The movement caused his face to fall forward nearer the mud and his nostrils to fill with the smell of the sea. The tide! He could see that the water had risen a little in the time since he had become conscious. The tide would come in and cover his face. He had to get free - shift the weight that was holding him down. But he felt weak and dazed and there was nothing for him to push against to hold his face away from the mud. He groped behind him and felt the seat. Jesus, he was still strapped into his seat!
He ran his right hand up and down searching for the seat belt and found it stretched tight across his chest. That explained the pain in the area of his heart. Eventually he located the buckle, flipped its tongue with his thumb and sagged forward into the mud. It was going to be okay. He'd be able to shift the seat, or wriggle from underneath it. A little more purchase was all that was needed. But that wasn't going to be easy. Exerting the slightest pressure made him sink closer to the water.
He knew that the mud had absorbed the force of his impact and had saved his life, but now he cursed it. He began to prod and grope beneath the mud. After several minutes he touched something solid, an old plank of wood. It was slippery, but it did not move when he gripped it with both hands and then pushed upwards with all his strength, bringing his legs awkwardly into play. Nothing happened. He slumped down again and inhaled the odour of decay. He had to concentrate on controlling his breath which was coming in shallow puffs. As he waited, the breeze peppered his face with grains of ice and he realised for the first time how cold it was.
He breathed deeply, right into his stomach, and tightened his grip beneath the mud. He was going to do it. He was going to lift the damned seat because he hadn't survived the crash to be drowned in six inches of the East River.
End of excerpt.

An Analysis of The Reader's Reaction to This Story Beginning

  1. The story opens with Harland regaining consciousness and letting the reader know what he sees - and his reaction to this. Notice that AT NO TIME does the author 'tell' you what is going on. He doesn't say "Harland gradually came to and started noticing his surroundings" or something similar. (If he had, you would be able to see the author at work.) In this beginning, you are as close as you can get to looking out through Harland's eyes and seeing what he sees... then following his thought processes as he works out what's going on.
  2. The author doesn't wait too long - the second paragraph - before telling you the name of the main character. It's okay to use 'he' or 'she' initially as long as we find out very quickly who it is we're 'becoming'. The reader usually identifies strongly with the main character, and finds it annoying not to know his or her name.
  3. In the second paragraph, we realise that Harland has been in an accident, or injured in some way. We don't know whether he's a fugitive, running from the sirens and helicopters, or whether these are associated with an accident. Our curiosity is aroused.
  4. In the third paragraph, we find out that he is trapped ("Will he escape...?")
  5. In the fourth paragraph, Harland realises that the tide is rising and he could drown if he doesn't free himself. We don't yet know what it is that is pinning him down - and we don't find out until Harland does, by reaching behind him to discover that he is still strapped into his seat.
  6. Bit by bit, Harland works out how to free himself... and the reader is with him all the way. By the end of the excerpt we still don't know what kind of accident it is, but by the second page we realise that it is not a car seat that Harland is in, but one from a plane. He is the sole survivor from a plane that crashed on its approach to La Guardia airport.

What You Can Learn From The Above Excerpt

  1. The importance of deep point of view. Mastery of this is one of the cornerstones of good writing. If you can handle viewpoint well, you will find that you rarely fall into the trap of 'telling' rather than 'showing'. When you are deep into a character's point of view, you automatically generate more emotional punch and thus involve the reader in the action.
  2. You should introduce details AS THEY BECOME IMPORTANT TO THE CHARACTER. There's no need to throw in everything about the character's background in the first few pages. As this story goes on, we find out more about the plane, the circumstances of the crash, and Harland's background. All of it is revealed only when it is relevant to the current action.
  3. Arouse the reader's curiosity so he or she has to keep turning pages to find out either what has happened or what will happen next. The golden rule: don't reveal too much too soon. Always leave the reader with a reason to keep reading (a burning desire to find out who, why, or how!)

© Marg McAlister


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