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The Red Pen: Beginnings

Publishing Director and author Moira Forsyth is back on the blog today with the fourth in a series of blog posts featuring advice for writers. We are not currently open to unsolicited submissions, but the tips in The Red Pen blog series will help you ensure that when we do reopen in June, your book will be in the best possible shape.


With confidence, I can claim I’m good at beginnings. I have many more beginnings of novels and stories in my file than finished ones. Beginnings are easy to write.

It’s possible of course to get them wrong.

All writers should read William Goldman’s two wonderful books about screenwriting for Hollywood[1]. Highly entertaining as memoir, they also include guidance that’s as relevant to the writing of short stories and novels as screenplays. His advice to those attempting a screenplay for the first time is unforgettable (at least, I’ve never forgotten it!) and well worth considering.

Enter the scene as late as possible.

In other words, forget the slow pan over the rooftops, the background voiceover, the scene which introduces characters and gives background information. Just get on with the action.

I’ve read quite a number of submissions from beginning authors where the opening chapter should be removed altogether – particularly if it has the portentous title, Prologue. I’m tempted to say Get rid of the Prologue! If you want to keep it, be clear about its purpose.

Many crime novels begin with a short scene from the point of view of the criminal (often a serial killer, who pops up in short sections throughout the book to make sinister threats and sound creepy) or to describe the killer getting rid of the body. These are effective when they’re done well. Often though, the killer sounds like a cardboard cut-out psychopath and is much less interesting than any of the other characters. Perhaps after all the idea that evil is banal is correct? Be wary of that when you’re writing about it.

I once removed two ‘framing’ chapters – at the opening and close of a novel – because although I loved them a lot, they didn’t add much and were in fact a distraction: they introduced elements that were not developed or followed up in the rest of the text.

What then, is your first chapter for? What do you want to achieve with it?

It might serve any or several of the following purposes:

  • Create atmosphere
  • Introduce significant characters
  • Give a glimpse of a scene in the past that’s directly relevant to the main action
  • Let the reader know where and when the novel is set
  • Establish the tone of the novel (more on this later)
  • Reveal whether this novel is set in the real world or an invented one

However, its primary function is none of the above. Its primary function is to capture the reader.

What do you do when you go into a bookshop? (Oh how we’ve missed them during lockdown!) You browse, pick books off the shelves or table, look at the cover, turn it over, read the blurb on the back and the praise quotes from other authors. Then—

You open it and read the first pages.

Publishers do much the same with submissions. We read the synopsis or summary then the opening pages and scan through some of the rest of the text. We look at the author profile, consider the book as a whole, and whether it fits into our list… etc. etc. But what sells a book to us, over and over, is the writing.

Your first chapter is a vital introduction to your work, and you must get it right.

Things to avoid:

  • Weather – try to steer clear of the It was a dark and stormy night kind of opening
  • Landscape – closely allied to weather
  • Curses – a string of ‘fucks’ from the characters in the first scene won’t particularly endear a publisher to the novel and will put many readers off. First person narrative when you’re establishing a distinctive voice can make that work – sometimes! See examples below.
  • Someone throwing up or having a distressing time in the lavatory on the first page (yes, it happens…)
  • Expecting your reader to care about a character as much as you do, in the first few pages

The last point is relevant if your main character is having a traumatic time before the action even begins. They may have just suffered a bereavement or other terrible event; they or one of their loved ones may have been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Remember, you know your character and have great sympathy with them: the reader does not and cannot. It’s a risk to begin with a character who is suffering; a reader will care much more about your characters half-way through than on the opening pages. Opening with tragedy can be done, but it needs skilful handling.

It is fine to open a novel with dialogue and indeed it can be hugely successful. The conversation captures the reader because it’s interesting or funny or immediately creates tension or establishes the situation. Then you can move smoothly into your narrative, confident the reader is paying attention and wants to know more.

A note on ‘tone’. The voice you use in the opening pages will help to orient the reader in your world. A glimmer of humour, a sense of drama, an unfamiliar viewpoint, can all be subtly but powerfully drawn in a few lines and give the reader an idea of what kind of novel this is. If they warm to the tone of your narrative, they’ll read on.

Here are some opening lines of novels that made me want to do so:

1.

Leading his burro through a grassy clearing in the woods, the last old prospector of those parts came upon a mattress, the ticking here and there a little foxed but otherwise in excellent condition.

“Don’t mind if I do,” he told himself, lowering his weary old bones onto the mattress. It was the softest thing he had ever felt. Too soft by far for a man like him, the earth his only bed.

2.

They tell you that Edinburgh is the most beautiful city in the world, the Athens-of-the-Whatsit and all that shite, but see when you’re stuck on an East Coast train staring at Marionville industrial depot, you could be looking at the arse-end of anywhere.

I drain my lager and have another half-hearted flick through the Daily Record.

3.

Nobody was around to see the car draw to a halt on the road bridge. There was hardly any traffic on the Kingsleigh bypass and the occupants waited, engine off, until there were no headlights carving a path through the darkness below them.

‘Now?’

‘Now.’

They got out of the front seats and got hold of their passenger in the back. He was unhelpfully heavy but they managed to prop him up. His head and torso flopped onto the parapet.

‘Are you sure he’s dead?’

‘Yeah. I’m sure. But if he isn’t, he soon will be.’

4.

The bride stood like a pillar of salt, rigid under layers of itchy petticoats. Sweat dripped down the hollow of her back and collected in pools under her arms staining the ivory silk. She edged closer to The Bedeken Room door, one ear pressed up against it.

She heard the men singing. Their shouts of ‘lai-lai-lai!’ rolled down the dusty synagogue corridor. They were coming for her. This was it. This was her day. The day her real life started. She was nineteen and had never held a boy’s hand.

Finally, enjoy writing – and rewriting – your opening chapter. The first time you’re plunging in and it’s all before you; revising it, you have the satisfaction of knowing what it is you’re launching the reader into! Remember you can always change the beginning if it’s no longer right, by the time you get to the end.

[1] Adventures in the Screen Trade(Abacus) and Which Lie Did I Tell? (Bloomsbury) by William Goldman

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth