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re: How Come If I Stay’s Opening Works?

in General fiction/Openings/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Readers…

Last week a writer—Diane—asked me why some current bestsellers that start with backstory or as the day is dawning can make those slower beginnings work so well? She specifically asked about The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. I posted my answer about The Fault in Our Stars last week. I think this is such a useful exploration of story beginnings that I’m taking up that same question today, this time parsing out If I Stay‘s opening.

The Editor

Dear Diane…

Gayle Forman’s If I Stay opens with what looks like a no-no: the protagonist joins her family for breakfast and they discuss plans for the day. Too often such “dawning day” openings just introduce the protagonist and show her “home base” as a reference point before she leaves for adventure. A strong opening doesn’t just introduce and ground—it intrigues readers in ways that prompt further reading. Forman intrigues by triggering and stoking anticipation. Her chapter header is “7:09 a.m.”, setting up the expectation that a big thing will happen any minute. Then the first two sentences tell us some big “it” is pending. Next, the family debates whether to stay off the icy roads. By then, readers—who know they’ve chosen a book about a girl deciding to live or die after she’s the only survivor of her family’s car crash—have their metaphoric hands over their eyes, thinking, “No! Stay home!” Forman stokes anticipation even as she shows the loving family her protagonist will lose, setting up the heroine’s emotional anguish. Dawning day, yes, but that dawn is loaded.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How Come The Fault In Our Stars Opening Works?

in Narrative Voice/Openings/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I am currently devouring your Writing New Adult Fiction. You strongly encourage authors to jump into the action from the very first sentence but a few current best sellers begin with backstory or as the day is dawning, as in The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. Can you give any insight as to what makes those slower beginnings work so well?

Thank you,
Diane

Dear Diane…

In media res, or “in the middle of the action,” is about timing your book’s opening so that readers join a life in progress rather than shake your hand and read your cast list. This strategy is coupled with other strategies intended to intrigue readers, like piquing curiosity, startling them, triggering fears, etc. The Fault in Our Stars opens with Hazel going to the Support Group meeting where she’ll meet the love of her life. It’s the right time to enter her life even though the action isn’t bold. John Green then startles readers with first lines that defy expectations: a teen poo-poos her impending death. He then makes sure all teens can relate to that teen narrator even though they don’t suffer terminal cancer: Hazel suffers adults who claim to know how she should handle her problem because they are adults and adults know best. I feel your suffering, fellow teen! Her description of the meeting and how she’s been pushed to go feels more like commiserating with peers than a backstory dump. Slow? For those who want more action, perhaps. But the book’s success suggests its opening intrigues. I love this question and will explore If I Stay‘s opening in the next post.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How Many Characters Are Too Many in Chapter 1?

in Characterization/Openings/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Is there a maximum number of characters to introduce in the first chapter of a MG grade or YA novel? I don’t want to introduce too many, but I have 8 characters PLUS a generic Mom, Dad, and two sisters. Does it make a diff if some of these 8 are name intros only?

Sincerely,

Carol

Dear Carol…

Twelve characters isn’t an opening chapter—it’s a party! And it’s overwhelming. No reader can keep that many new characters straight, especially when two thirds of them are just names. That’s a clear sign you’ve fallen victim to backstory, where you explain your protagonist’s life or describe her predicament in full. Don’t do that. Chapter One should focus on the protagonist, revealing her main concern and hinting at the journey or challenges ahead of her. You may do this with the help of a secondary character or two, but keep the number small, and have them acting upon or reacting to the protagonist, keeping the spotlight on her. There’s no official number of characters for the first chapter, but ‘fewer is better’ is a good rule of thumb. Next time, instead of writing a big ol’ party, imagine your readers at a big ol’ party. They wouldn’t get some voice-over delivering the history of every party-goer as they walk in the door. They’d meet a few of them, one or two at a time, one question-and-response at a time. At the end of the night, they’d go home with a solid feeling for two or maybe three people. Perfect. There’ll be plenty of parties for the folks they didn’t meet tonight—just as there are plenty of chapters in your book for the characters in the wings.

Happy writing!
The Editor

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