A guest post by noted author and blogger C. S. Lakin.
Think of your novel as a gold mine, with a mother lode resting deep in the heart of a mountain. In order to get to that treasure, you have to build a sturdy framework as you dig into all that dirt and rock. You don’t want the mine to collapse on your head—that would spell disaster.
Now think about the entrance to the mine, which is particularly important to attend to. All the bracing and construction that follows will be built off that initial structure. So if it’s flawed or built with flimsy materials . . . well, we’re back to disaster.
So how is all this like a novel?
In order to get to the heart of your story, the “”entrance” must be set up clearly in the first pages of your novel. Most authors know that the beginning of a novel is the most crucial and carries the weightiest burden of any other scene or chapter in your entire book.
The opening scene must convey so many things that often the author will have to rewrite it numerous times to get it right, and sometimes the best time to rewrite the opening scene is when your novel is done. Why? Because at that point you have (one hopes) developed your rich themes and motifs, thoroughly explored your protagonist’s heart and character arc, and have brought your plot to a stunning and satisfying conclusion.
Your Opening Scenes Support the Entire Novel
Since the first one or two scenes carry the burden of the whole book, if they don’t have the correct structure to hold back the tons of dirt [read: the next 70,000 words or more] overhead from falling, you’re looking at a potential (or probable) collapse of the whole story. No way will the miners make it to the heart, where the big pocket of gold awaits. More than likely they will be choking on dust and crawling and clawing their way back out to a place they can lick their wounds, clean up a bit, and ponder how in the world they will find another way in. Whereas, they could have successfully journeyed to the heart had they but taken the time to reinforce the entrance.
Starting Is Better Than Finishing
There’s an ancient proverb that goes like this: “Finishing is better than starting.” And therein lies great wisdom, to be sure. I can start a whole lot of projects, but the real test of perseverance, success, and merit is in the finishing. However . . . when it comes to writing a great novel, starting is more important than finishing—at least when it comes to the importance of your major story elements. If you have every essential thing in place in your first scene, you will have set up the entire book in a way that will lead you wonderfully to the finish line.
The First-Page Checklist
I am often asked to do one-on-one critiques at writers’ workshops and events, and because those appointments are usually a scant fifteen minutes long, I came up with a way to dive into each writer’s story in that short time. They are instructed to bring page one of their novel, and in that short span of time I read it, then go over a number of important elements that need to be on the first page—using my handy “First-Page Checklist.”
Granted, not everything on the list must be on page one, but the idea is to be aware of all the elements needed to appear early in a novel—in order to set up that strong entrance to the mine. I believe that the closer to page one you can get all these components, the better. I have heard other writing instructors say similar things in their workshops as well.
Without sending you into cardiac arrest by listing nearly twenty important items you need in that first scene, I’m going to concentrate on some important ones—the ones that really need to be considered.
So here for easy reference (and also here, as a pdf you can download) , is the First-Page Checklist.
First Page Checklist
____ Opening Hook: Clever writing and image that grabs the reader
____ Introduction of main character in first few lines
____ Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening)
____ A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative
____ A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character
____ A hint at character’s immediate intentions
____ A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear
____ Unique voice/writing style
____Setting the tone for the entire book
____ A glimpse at character’s personal history, personality—shed light on motivation
____ Introduction of plot goal
____ A course of action/decision implied: introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension
____ Pacing: jump right into present action. No back story
· One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable
· One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosity
· One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes your book different/stand out
· Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable
· A way to hint at your theme, if you have one
You don’t want to be that miner who is left scratching his head at the collapse of his mine shaft after an earthquake, wondering what he did wrong. Just as with anything you build, it’s all about the foundations—the materials and design used to ensure that structure you have delineated on those blueprints will stand the test of time.
You can “build” you novel so it, too, stands the scrutiny of critics and has lasting power as it speaks to untold people regardless of time or place. With careful planning, you can make it to the heart of your mine and load up your sack with gold. Take the time to shore up the framework of your novel’s “entrance.” In doing so, you’ll learn how to construct a firm entrance for your mining operation that it will serve you time and again with each novel you write—leading the reader to the heart of your story.
C. S. Lakin is a multi-published novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copy editor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog,Live Write Thrive. Her latest book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here.