Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Where's the Beginning?

Once upon a time in my childhood, which now seems so very long ago, all the stories my mother read to me began with those words. It was a much simpler time. Everyone knew where books started—at the beginning.

But when I started writing stories of my own, those beginnings weren’t so easy to identify.

This week, a budding new author trusted me to read her work-in-progress. She jumped right in with action in the Prologue. (Prologues are often controversial; people love ‘em or hate ‘em. Whether or not you decide to write one, don’t let a weak prologue dilute a strong first chapter.)

The heroine—I’ll call her “Elise”—was struggling for her life in a shadowy battle but I had trouble making sense out of what was happening. Then, Elise opened her eyes and saw the familiar surroundings of her room. What? It was a dream. Oh, I don’t know Elise yet. The story wasn’t anchored. The entire scene was a puzzle. Okay. Puzzles aren’t bad. They make your brain try to figure them out. Next, Elise sat in bed remembering the stranger, a businessman named Frank Wells, who’d heard her sales pitch and offered her a prestigious job at his company in another state. I turned the page to begin Chapter One. The scene was well written with lots of active verbs, precise nouns, and well-placed description. The dialogue was snappy, and the scene flowed smoothly—until Elise met Frank Wells and he offered her a job.

What? The entire scene was a flashback?

The author had just given me literary whiplash, and I didn’t like it. I felt obligated to finish reading her story. But if this were a novel I’d casually picked up, I would have closed the book.

Romance readers seek entertainment. It’s not that we don’t have brains. We’re generally intelligent, successful women with busy lives. We read for pleasure, entertainment, and maybe to escape for a little while. We don’t want authors to make us work that hard to understand what’s happening.

An author admitted her first novel, prior to publication, contained a first chapter that was axed by her editor. He said, “Your story really starts in Chapter Two.” Several authors agreed they’d had the same problem. In the first chapter, they were getting to know a new character, and they hadn’t hit their writing stride until the second chapter.

How do you know where a story begins? What advice can you give to new writers?

~Roxanne Sherwood

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