Hello and Welcome
Indie Novella Writing Course
Lesson 1 - Openings
Regards where to start when it comes to both editing and writing a novel, let’s begin at the beginning. Your opening pages should encapsulate all the essential elements of novel writing – characterization, point of view, style, structure etc. – and within those pages, you lay out what your novel is and where the novel is going. This is what the reader will use to ask the all-important question; do I want to read on?
As described in the introduction, there are no mistakes when it comes to writing. What can seem awful to one reader or critic, can be seen as ingenious to another. Likewise, there is no ‘wrong way’ to open a novel and there is hence no ‘correct’ approach to writing an opening chapter. However, there are some approaches which work better than others and some themes that crop up time and again which pique a reader’s interest and have them ready to make that all important time commitment.
What makes a memorable opening?
Consider 4 novels; Julian Barnes The Sense of An Ending, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, David Nicholls’ Us, and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. All contemporary literature, all either listed for prizes or million sellers, and all with their opening chapters on Amazon with the Look Inside option.
The Sense of An Ending begins with the phrase, ‘I remember’, followed by a series of bullet points, and the paragraph ends with the phrase, ‘This isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’ Hence the concept of the unreliable narrator is hit home while also, very briefly, laying out some information that we assume will have relevance later in the story – hooks. What it also does is allude to what the novel is. Memory and time, and the concept that what we remember may not be what actually occurred.
Eleanor Oliphant on the other hand begins with ‘when people ask me what I do I tell them I work in an office.’ The first page uses this phrase to sum up who Eleanor Oliphant is – characterization made clear right for the get-go – and the first page ends with the reader coming away knowing Eleanor is in her early thirties, has had something of an abusive past, and considers herself as quite anonymous to those around her. This quite effectively lays out what the novel is about – Eleanor Oliphant and her character arc.
Swimming Home initially begins with a short passage, out of time, and the contradiction of a threat verses a declaration of love – ‘When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.’ A car is swerving, an affair has taken place, and all both parties want is to go home safely, though the reader is immediately asked the question what Kitty believes home to be.
In Us, we see that the first page is also the first chapter. David Nicholls uses an alternative structure with numerous short chapters, the first lasting only a few paragraphs beginning with the narrator being awoken to begin a hunt for burglars in his home only to return to bed to find out that he had actually been woken by his wife because she wanted to ask him for a divorce.
So, to answer the question what makes a memorable opening, simply put in these examples, you get an idea of what you are signing up to. After only the first page, the reader gets some idea of what the book is about. But to be more precise, the reader experiences something of the central conflict.
Each of our four novels introduce conflict early on. Barnes, the conflict of memory and the importance of those out of context bullet points. Levy, the beginning of an affair and what could be a car crash – figuratively and literally. Nicholls, not just an impending divorce but how the narrator chose to mishear his wife and search the house for burglars first. Honeyman’s, Eleanor herself and internal conflict of who Eleanor is.
There may be no rules when it comes to writing, however bringing your reader’s attention to conflict straightaway is definitely a skill. We use these four examples to demonstrate this pattern. Sometimes we, as authors, believe we need to fill our opening pages with backstory or characterization in order to lead our reader to the conflict – the heart of our novel – but being able to introduce it during your early pages is attention grabbing and has your reader taking the next step in their journey and reading on.
A couple of words of warning, however. A significant amount of contemporary fiction introduces conflict early by essentially giving away the ending before starting at the beginning. SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep is an interesting example as it takes you into the story immediately – a woman remembers going to sleep in her twenties and wakes up thirty years later with no recollection of where she is or what has happened in between. Watson uses the technique of jumping straight in at a point in time close to what is actually the end of the novel and after the opening chapters, moves back the start. This has become a very successful literary technique as it also introduces suspense and tension early on. However, it may not be appropriate in all situations and building the tension so early and then asking the reader to essentially start again can be somewhat off-putting. Again, there are no rules in novel writing. Some readers love this approach, others don’t. We chose our four examples largely because of how quickly they introduce their story and then set about telling their story. Always do what suits your novel, but do remember, conflict in some form is important in opening your novel.
Exposition and “Show” vs “Tell”
This is another important consideration in the opening of your novel and follows on from our discussion on conflict. Exposition gets a bad name in writing. It is often used negatively – there is too much exposition – and writers are told to “show” rather than “tell”.
"Showing" is putting your reader in the scene with your character. When watching a film you gain knowledge of the character and the plot from observing what you have seen. It is the same with writing, especially with openings. Too much backstory upfront is like a film opening with twenty minutes of narration prior to the opening scene. However, exposition need not be avoided entirely. There can be a balance between conflict/action and then a gradual introduction of exposition to build your world or divulge your character’s backstory.
Take Us as an example, the first page lays out the conflict and action – Douglas, I think I want to leave you. However, the next eighteen pages are exposition – who Douglas is, what his life situation presently is, and the story of how he met his wife in the first place. Nicholls then picks back up at page twenty-three with, in italics, I think our marriage has run its course, she said. I think I want to leave you. Us was long-listed for the Booker Prize, so it goes to show that it is not simply a case of “show is good” and “tell is bad” but rather it is the blend that matters. The skill of drip-feeding exposition into action across a number of pages.
A great deal can be taken from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, regarding interaction between action and exposition. In the opening chapter you subtly learn a significant amount about the characters all through the early actions and your learning continues throughout the novel. However, do remember Swimming Home was short listed for the Booker Prize so do not be too harsh on yourself if executing this is challenging.
Also, to confuse you even more, consider your use of language when “showing” rather than “telling”.
For example, I am thirty years old, ten years ago my father died suddenly and I am currently feeling anxious.
Instead consider, I held my breath clutching the locket my father had given me for my twenty-first birthday. Almost a decade ago now, it was the last present I was to receive from him, and as the tightness spread to my chest I could feel the same sensations of foreboding and impending internal collapse as I did the day they sat me down to tell me the news.
You have probably heard the phrase ‘gilding the lily’. It mean adding unnecessary ornamentation to something beautiful in its own right. The reason it is so often applied to writing is because, and especially during the opening chapters, writers tend to ‘over-write’. A desire to demonstrate your skill at writing can lead to complicated sentences and the wide use of vocabulary, however this at times can be distracting for the reader and take their attention away from the central conflict or the action that is taking place. We do want to read beautiful writing, however it is sometimes best not to thrust it into your reader’s face by overdoing it at the start. Tips we would recommend are to go through your opening paragraphs and look for what sentences can be shortened and where your language can be simplified. Simpler sentences can be more powerful.
However, do not feel the need to remove longer sentences completely. Note that there is nothing more monotonous than a series of five-word sentences strung together. It’s boring. Dull. Instead, consider how your writing starts to flow just by varying sentence length. By waiting, drawing you reader in, and utilising simple language to build your opening narrative, you suddenly have the opportunity to bring in that longer, more complex description because it contrasts with what has gone before, making your writing look diverse. Making it sing!
Characterisation and Point of View
This might be stating the obvious but the opening of your novel also introduces your reader to both your characters and whether you are writing from the first or third person (the most common forms of narration). Eleanor Oliphant opens by presenting Eleanor to the reader. From the opening you can tell that Eleanor is the novel’s key character and, from the early descriptions of her, her character arc will be pivotal to the story. The Sense of an Ending states, there were three of us and now he made the fourth. At least two of these four characters are likely to be pivotal in the story – the narrator and he. It is also very clear from sentences such as ‘if I can’t be sure of the actual events any more’, that the point of view is from the unreliable narrator who is also letting the reader know that they are literally unreliable.
Swimming Home is the only novel out of our four to be third person. However, there is an impression from our opening page that the novel might be from the point of view of the person in the car with Kitty Finch. The luxury of the third person is that the point of view can change and what we next see is a series of characters standing around the pool and it is these characters who will be our leads throughout the book.
The All Important First Page
Taking the opening of your novel to its most literal, we should not under emphasise the importance of the first page of your novel. Unfortunately, this could be all a potential reader ends up reading of your novel especially if you are a debut writer. This is a truly dreadful thing to say as writers, especially when they are starting out, want their audience to read the novel in its entirety to experience all the hidden gems and slow reveals. However, even as authors, we have all done it – pick up a novel in a bookshop, glance at the blurb and read the opening paragraph to see if it clicks with us. Therefore, with only a few lines at your disposal to make an impression, the first page needs to both somehow reflect you as a writer and what your novel is in just a few paragraphs. We hate to put the pressure on, but your first page should in reality be the last page you write. It is the page you save until all the rest has been tied up and you can devote attention to making sure your writing is the best it can possibly be.
So, if your first page is aimed at that Waterstones reader picking up and putting down books at will, what do they want from an opening page? Like I said, we as authors can be fans of the slow reveal however without the luxury of word of mouth or a large publicity machine to endorse our writing, we need to address the following:
Who – we need to introduce our characters or at least the key ones.
Voice – the first page needs to establish you as a storyteller, therefore your tone and voice needs to come across clearly and come across well.
When and where – you are allowed to retain some subtlety, however an indication of which time period your novel is set in and the location will help the reader picture the setting. Alternative, signposting the time and place in the chapter title is also effective e.g. Berlin – 1942.
Meaning – something in your opening page needs to hint at what your story is and what your central conflict will be.
If you feel your story doesn’t really start until beyond the first few pages, then do not be afraid to cut those pages out. A reader would ideally want to be dropped straight into the action and the best way to hook them is if something is happening on that first page. The Inciting Incident is defined as the event which incites your main character into motion, hence kicking off the story proper. This does not need to be an earth-shattering event, and could quite easily be something quite subtle such as a stare they receive from another character. The point is, the reader should feel that something has happened and their journey has begun.
Also, thought the first page is where you get to exhibit your writing to a reader, do not be afraid to keep it simple. You may be a good writer but readers usually only pick up the great authors if they want to read good writing. The majority of readers will pick up your novel because they want a good story so don’t worry too much about crafting that all important first sentence. Instead pay attention to making that first page intriguing enough for the reader to turn the page.
The opening of your novel is probably both the most daunting but most exciting phase in your journey as a writer. Sometimes it is our jumping-off point – the whole idea for novel could have come to you in that opening scene. And sometimes it is very last thing you write – you need to see the story fully formed to know how best to begin it. And though we have said there are no mistakes or wrong turns, if we did have to offer up one tip it would be to introduce conflict early and let your prose and characters react to it. Before you know it, your novel will be dancing off the page.
Writing Exercise - Week 1
Week 1’s inaugural writing exercise comes from Damien’s experience of writing the opening to Joined Up. We’re going to give you a list of prompts to get your story going. Feel free to use characters and settings from our existing novel or create something completely new – choose one you feels right for you.
• Your protagonist gets stood up (example: Joined Up)
• Your protagonist receives a piece of bad news (example: Us)
• Your character is in the midst of a unique action – scaling a tall building, eating cherries with custard – create a strong visual image develop this image into a scene, bringing in action and dialogue and/or interior monologue (example: Swimming Home)
• Describe the day everything changes for your protagonist.
• Describe who your character is and what internal conflict is driving them (example: Eleanor Oliphant / A Sense of An Ending)
The key to this exercise is NOT writing a lot. You have 500-700 words to get into the story. Through the course you can either build on this or just use it as a one off.