I’ve recently been thinking about novel beginnings, and how it’s common (and good) advice to start with big obvious conflict. However, I don’t think that it’s always necessary to do that. More importantly, I’ve been thinking about why that is true for me as a reader, and by extension, as a writer.
When I begin reading a new book, I want to trust the author, and the author’s voice. I want that as much as or more than any other element of the story. If the author’s voice is strong/interesting, she doesn’t have to be describing Things Blowing Up Real Good. Her prose can ease me into the story. This is more likely to happen if I am familiar with the author, and that trust is already established; otherwise, she has to show me she has Style. Not too much Style–not so much that I’m annoyed–but a level that makes me feel I’m in good hands.
As you might guess, the author’s voice is something on which everyone’s mileage will vary. Widely.
More prosaically, I can get involved with a story quickly if it immediately poses questions, either through presenting a mystery or presenting a contradiction or something otherwise unexpected. Even an unexpected description (which goes back to voice, a bit) will do for making me want to read on. (Ditto chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences…it’s turtles, all the way down.)
Immediate suffering/problems on the part of the narrator does work for me, as well, quite reliably. I think that’s the quickest and easiest way to engage the reader. What does the protagonist want, and why can’t she have it?
However, I prefer the feeling of being safe in the author’s hands.
As an example, as a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I looked forward to seeing the movie version of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe after hearing how faithful the details were to the book. However, I didn’t love the movie. After some thought, I realized that what made the experience incomplete for me was that in the movie, the author’s voice was gone. And that voice was what I loved, without even knowing it. I don’t remember flashy opening sentences. I remember the voice.
Related Post: Novel Beginnings – On Opening Sentences.