Monday, April 25, 2011

Come Entertain Me -- How to Start a Novel or Story

by Vivian Zabel

         A friend asked me how she should begin her book. She didn't know how to start. She had other questions that made me decide to begin a series of articles about writing. The first, of course, is about beginning.

         I have picked up something to read and lay it down in seconds. Why? Because the first paragraph nearly put me to sleep.

         We need to catch a reader's attention immediately with strong action verbs and, well, some kind of action, whether physical or intellectual. That first paragraph (and all the following ones, for that matter) should not be a dump for detail and description. The first sentence or paragraph is called the "hook," that which grabs the reader's attention.

         A manuscript submitted to a publisher started with the following paragraph:

        The town was dull and drab. The trees were colorless. The people matched everything else. They were walking with their eyes on the ground, and they were shuffling their feet as they walked. They were silent when they happened to met on the street.

         That publisher didn't accept that piece, but how could it have come alive, become interesting? Let's see what we can do.

         The dullness of the town spread to the trees around it. The drab forest of brown, withered branches matched the people who shuffled along the dirty streets, with no one raising his or her eyes. One stooped old man stumbled into a post.Without raising his eyes from where they watched his feet, the man mumbled, "Sorry," before he scooted away.

         Which version would you prefer? Which paragraph grabbed your attention enough that you might continue reading?

         One big difference between the two paragraphs -- the first example is filled with state-of-being verbs (was, were). Yes, at times a being verb must be used, but if a bit of rewriting will delete a state-of-being verb and use action verb, then a writer needs to tighten and strengthen the work by making the change.

         Another problem with the top example -- detail and description fills it, no action, no interest-creating material.

         The "improved" paragraph still isn't exactly interesting. It needs a plot push, something to move the plot forward or introduce it; or it needs something to help develop a character of characters.

          The gaunt man stood atop a hill gazing at the town below him. "Strange," he muttered to himself, "I've never seen such a drab place in my life."
         His eyes searched for any sign of life, real life. Trees stood bent and twisted, nothing but brown leaves in late spring. "The place looks dingy, almost like a film covers it." He shook his head. "The people don't even look alive." He watched one old man shuffle down the street, never lifting his eyes from staring at the ground. 

         Now, what has happened? We get the feeling that something is really wrong by "seeing" the town through the eyes of a character in the story. Does that give more impact? I think so.

         I write many short stories, some which grew up to be novels, but some which still remain stories, such as The Day of Two Suns.

         Thus begins a series of writing tips that hopefully will help us all be better writers. This coming Sunday, I'll give some writing "dos and don'ts" that may add to our writing tips.

Vivian Zabel, author of Stolen  
4RV Publishing  
4RV Catalog  


  1. Great post. Looking forward to seeing ways I can improve my writing.

  2. Thanks, Beverly. I hope to help writers.

  3. Thanks for showing different drafts of a paragraph and for pointing out what made one stronger than another.

    Linda A.

  4. That's the teacher in me: explain, give example, explain. *laugh*