How to Start a Novel and Keep Your Readers Reading is a guest post by Molly O’Keefe
Molly O’Keefe is the Rita-Award-winning author of over fifteen romance novels. She published her first Harlequin romance at age 25 and hasn’t looked back. She loves exploring every character’s road towards happily ever after.
How to start a novel
I think and have always thought and probably will always think that the beginning of the novel is the hardest part of the novel writing process. There is so much resting on those first few pages. Not only do you have to introduce theme and character and plot and goals and motivations and be funny or scary or suspenseful or clever, but you also have to do all those things so that the reader can’t tell you’re doing it– very difficult.
I have been a reader far longer than I have been a writer and if there is one thing I’ve learned as a READER it’s that the best storytelling happens outside of expectation – when I can’t see it coming. And I think RWA (Romance Writers of America) and all helpful rules and guidelines we pick up at the numerous workshops conferences and online courses CREATE expectation. If we are all following “the rules” we’re all writing the same book!
I think we need to step back from those small nitpicky guidelines and rules that we’ve been taught and remember that good storytelling is about engaging the reader with questions. Books become page turners because the reader is dying to know the answers to questions that the writer controls and manipulates. It’s really very simple – at the beginning of our books, we want our readers to be asking PLOT questions – what is going to happen next? and CHARACTER questions – who are these people? and BACKSTORY questions – why are they behaving this way? That is how to start a novel.
And the more specific the questions and the more immediate the question the better. Will she get the promotion? Will he get out alive? Will he speak up for himself? Will she leave her husband? Will she kill her husband? Will she make out with the cute guy at the bar? Will she get out of bed?
The goal is to make every question — even the silly or frivolous fraught with tension and stakes. Remember the great Jenny Cruise book when the heroine is on the phone with her friend and trying to get that frozen brownie out of the pan — it’s a life or death battle for that brownie. If you are showing your character late for work and she’s NEVER late for work and she’s an aggressive woman with control issues – that morning commute has to be akin to the Battle of Hastings.
How to start a novel – not.
All too often books start with conversations – where one character tells the other character what they already know for the readers benefit – but it’s all about all the things going wrong and what’s happened since Dad died/they lost their job/they got divorced/their husband cheated on them etc… there’s no tension there. There’s information – but I’m not asking questions because the writer is answering them before I can ask them. In two words – no conflict.
Now – some of those rules we’ve all been told – don’t show ordinary world, start with a hook, the hero and heroine must meet in the first chapter, show don’t tell, start with action and dialogue. And even more the list I have created for myself over the years of things I don’t want to do in my books – you know, bob dialogue, repetition of theme, conflict and goal, lazy writing, misleading my reader – those rules become TOOLS for creating those reader questions and conflict.
I think one of the problems I have with a lot of romances these days is that many writers are lazy on the small scenes – the scenes that lead us to love scenes or black moments, or moments of change or grovelling or happy ever after – and the key is to make those scenes as important as those big scenes by, again controlling reader questions. If every scene has to be important and a scene that the reader is DYING to read whether they know it or not – it is doubly true for that opening scene.
So look at those rules you’ve been told and figure out which of them are tools you can use to jumpstart your opener – to get those reader’s hooked and asking questions. Because that’s what good storytelling does and that’s what we’re trying to do – tell great stories.
My new series The Notorious O’Neill’s is all about the questions. Inspired by Paul Newman and pralines, The Notorious O’Neill series takes place in Bonne Terre, a fictional town in Louisiana. Savannah, Tyler, and Carter are siblings who were left on their grandmother’s doorstep twenty years ago by their con artist mother. Each of the children has spent the last twenty years battling, or in Tyler’s case embracing, the notorious reputation attached to the O’Neill name.
The siblings are in danger of falling out of touch with each other – pulled in separate directions by their fears and lifestyles – when the fall out of a seven-year-old jewel theft shatters all of their lives.
For Savannah, the baby of the family, it’s a matter of learning to trust again, only the man she chooses to trust ends up breaking her heart. Tyler has to go home to Bonne Terre to face down his father, his demons, and Juliette Tremblant – the girl he loved and left years ago. Carter, as a Baton Rouge politician, has been trying to keep his own skeletons in the closet – but when a beautiful stranger publically claims Carter got her pregnant his life and lies begin to unravel.
Throw in a devious grandma with a tarnished past, a couple of stolen gems and a family home with plenty of secrets – and you have the Notorious O’Neill series.
Great post as always Molly!
Hey! Thanks for having me – this site is amazing! Amy – thank you for stopping by!
Great post, Molly!
Molly, what a terrific post. I love the idea of thinking that way–rules as tools! Thanks for the wonderful advice!
Thanks for the article. I’m doing rewrites on my first few chapters now and trying desperately to avoid the information dump while at the same time dealing with and setting up the romantic suspense premise.
It’s a scary and delicate balancing act. So it’s always good to hear an experienced perspective, especially on craft issues, when you are writing.
Kathy – the rules as tools ideas really helped me. I was totally paralyzed by all the things I thought I needed to do added to the the things I didn’t want to do – between those two sets – not a whole lot of room.
Hey Nina – the Back Story Problem plagues all of us – no doubt about it. I always think error on the side of not enough information – because you can add in little snippets, answer the little questions so you keep the big questions rolling. But it’s a fine line that’s different for every book. I’m not smart enough to add another subgenre to my contemporary romance – I can’t build a world, or start a suspence subplot and introduce stuff – too many balls in the air for my poor brain. Good luck!
A grandma with a tarnished past?? Sounds interesting!
Molly, such a great post. So insightful.
Hi gang, good luck to the fortunate person who wins a Molly O’Keefe critique. As her CP, I can tell you that her critiques are worth their weight in gold!
Hey Molly, The more I learn about the craft of writing, the more disappointed I get with what I’m reading. Now, it seems like there’s too many written-by-the-rules books, not much that really grabs me and won’t let go. I like your idea of teasing the reader by answering little questions so the big question can pull the reader through the book. Thanks for your post.
Excellent words of wisdom! Creating questions in the reader’s mind is so critical in keeping a reader turning pages. I love your suggestion that we should focus on that rather than the little nitpicky rules so we’re not all writing the same book! Good luck with your series.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Having a “guide” to follow while writing helps keep me on track and you have mentioned some helpful things to add to my manual.
Hi Maurine – who doesn’t love a grandma with a tarnished past?
Mary – that is just the sort of thing I pay you the big bucks for – thanks for coming by!!!
Connie – I always worry about that same book thing – and I also think all those rules rub out our voices which is the biggest tool we have in seperating ourselves from the rest of the writing world. Thanks for stopping by!
Hi Kim – that manual is a great idea!! Glad I could help!
Oh my gosh Joan – writing has killed reading for me. Though I will say when a book pulls me all the way through it’s one of the best feelings in the world because it’s so hard. Over on drunkwritertalk.blogspot.com we’re talking about comfort reads – the books that writing could never ruin!
Joanna St. James
I think this time around instead of trying to play by the rules I will just do my thing and then play with the rules when I am in edits. Hopefully I will have something left when am done. This is a very helpful post.
thanks Joanna – glad I could help. I think that Steven king advice about first draft with the door closed, meaning no one else reads it no one else gets to be a voice in your head and then edit with the door open – makes for a much freer process. Is that a word – freer? more free. I’m a writer.
Wow, great advice! I always struggle going from an outline to first draft and I think it’s b/c I haven’t thought enough about those small scenes.
Ah yes, start with a hook. Let that first sentence grab the reader. No one ever seems to talk about the second sentence or the second paragraph. I like it when I read a book and can’t pinpoint certain elements because I get so caught up in the story. Then when I’m done reading I end up wondering ‘how did the author do it?’
I enjoyed your post. The more questions, the more the reader wants to keep turning the pages to find the answers, until they’ve reached the end.
Great article and the new series sounds like a lot of fun!
Great post, Molly! I totally agree on some small scenes being too darn small, and it’s hard to find that balance most of the time. Thanks for clearing things up!
Molly- The series sounds so fun! I love books about people on the fringe and families that aren’t spotless like that. Give me cat burglars, pirates, con artists etc. all day. Add in the sultry heat of Louisiana, and it’s a home run.
I do agree that writing makes reading a lot more difficult in the sense that it’s harder to get swept away. I was a “read anything I could get my hands on” type of person. Now, things I never even noticed before irk me and pull me out of the story. I wish I could turn off my inner editor and just read. That said, there are enough great writers that I still love reading, I just have to be more selective now!
Awesome thoughts! I am a rule follower by nature. However, as much as I’d like to see my name on the cover of a Steeple Hill, Harlequin, or Silhoutte cover, I have a hard time following all the “rules” of one line. I think love and life is messy. It’s not always pretty and clean cut, yet love shines through even the darkest of moments. That’s the story I often find myself writing. The love in the midst of the character’s messes.
Carrie – there’s always room for mess. My editor (Wanda Ottewell) says that a good romance, particularly a good superromance should be about a hero with stuff he has to deal with, a heroine who has stuff to deal with and then making it all that much worse – love stuff. Thanks for stopping by – good luck!
Christine – that’s why the good books are like such gems. And now, I’ve started to overlook a lot of those little things and when I pick up the book I think – please please just give me one really good question. Which is funny as I finish up a mms – I’ve just thrown in every question and the kitchen sink at the reader – I should really simplify.
Oh Bonnie! Thanks for stopping by – I don’t think I’ve cleared a single thing up – but thanks!! I feel like with every book I sit back and I go – oh hey – I totally got that right. i don’t have to worry about that little craft problem anymore and then I start the next book and I still don’t know what I’m doing
Marcie – don’t get me started on my hate affair with chapter 4. No one talks about chapter four when a whole whack of questions need to be answered and then you have to somehow figure out a whole bunch of new questions!
Great Post Molly. Learning to have your characters ask questions so that your reader will be engaged is a lot of fun. Makes you put on your thinking cap. I also agree that a grandma with a tarnished past could be good fodder for a book. Hmmm…. just how tarnished???
Loved the post, Molly. I whole heartily agree the opening chapters are hands down the hardest to write with getting all of the necessary info in there and making sure you don’t bog down the pace. I struggle with them all of the time. By the time I get to the middle, I’ve finally hit my stride but those beginning chapters can be nightmare at times. Sometimes I think of myself as the queen of rewrites. LOL.
And your new series sounds great!!! Paul Newman and pralines, huh? *G*
This post was really helpful. I sometimes get too caught up in trying to follow the guidelines that I can’t write. Especially with having getting a perfect hook. Thanks for the great blog post!
Really good advice no matter what the genre. I think I will bookmark this page, thanks so much for pointing me this way Lori.
Hi sue -thanks for stopping by and she’s pretty tarnished – but she’s cool and elegant all at the same time. I like her
Hey Kasha – I’m glad the blog was interesting to you – thanks for stopping by!
Shannah – this whole series I put together with a great hook – this gem theft thing but by the time I got to the second book I had to tear everything apart and then by the third book I had to tear it all apart again – hooks are really really tough. I’m doing a workshop at the New Jersey conference in a few weeks on hooks – the good the bad and the successful.
Jennifer – I’ve totally turned my head around with rewrites. They are my chance to get things right – I adore them. I adore editor feedback and my critque group is invaluable. I can’t do all this stuff on my own. Too hard.
Great post, Molly, thanks!
Molly, I like starting with dialogue! But it’s usually halfway through the conversation. I do have a problem with conflict, though… Critique groups are amazing for pointing out the obvious that you’ve missed. *laugh*
Congratulation on your new series.
Have to confess. I came for the crit and found a great post.
I’m about to rework a first chapter I was so enamored with, only to find it has serious flaws, so this perspective is timely.
Did not know that the ordinary world had become a no-no, at least according to the rules. I certainly see the wisdom of rules = tools.
Off to bookmark this site. Thanks Molly
Wait! There are questions that need to be answered by Chapter 4? As soon as it seems you have a grasp on what you are doing, something new crops up! Can you give a hint on what needs answered by chapter 4?
Hey Marcie it doesn’t have to be chapter four, chapter four is just my waterloo and in series romance it’s right after the first opening act – so something big has happened – if you have an ambiguious opening – lots of action, lots of questions – let’s say a woman, dressed in leather is clearly working on some kind of team connected by a radio and she’s killing bad guys. With wings. But something new happens – a bad guy has wings and fangs. And this suddenly makes her pause and she gets hurt – team comes in to save her. There’s a big meeting with ehr team and we find out it’s say the future, and she’s a new woman on a crim fighting team and no one trusts her. while she’s all bandaged up and they ask what’s the story with wings and fangs – she lies and says she’s never seen it. That’s the new question – after the questions about who she is and where they are and if they’re in fact good guys get answered, now our new question is – why is she lying. that’s fairly sloppy but there you go.
I like your comment on giving the reader all the answers to the questions before they have a chance to ask them. Something to think about and give much consideration. I think the rules are so embeded in my head that I am just smuthering the reader with info and not giving any oppertunity for questions, except at the end of a chapter of course. But giving special attention to the little scenes too…so simple it’s genius. Thanks.
And here I thought you opened up with some conflict and had to have that conflict last throughout the whole story. You are very in-depth with the process so do you have a main conflict introduced in Chapter 1 and then mini-conflicts throughout the story?
One more question – did you have a CP before you sold? Do you think someone could sell without a CP?
Thank you so much for such an informative article.
Great post. Figuring out how to start is always tricky. Finding that perfect balance between the right hooks and showing enough about the character that the reader actually wants to keep reading. Oi.
Thanks Molly. Great article. Putting questions in the reader’s mind is what I’ve been working on. I tend to put the story on an obvious path too early so it’s clear what will happen. Sigh… back to work.
Wow – thanks so much to everyone for posting – Marcie – questions and conflict aren’t always the same thing. Your conflict has to change and grow and morph. It can’t just be static. I’m having that problem with a mms right now – how long does one person keep a secret before a reader stops caring and throws the book against the wall. It’s like the TV show Lost – I watched that show to the end despite how mad I was – if they had answered just one question, one, i would have kept watching and not been angry. Instead they saved up all thier answers until the end and those that kept watching were just angry. that’s what we want to avoid.
Molly – imagine the light bulb burning brightly above my head. The Lost reference – oddly that’s why i didn’t watch the show – made it all click. Thanks for taking the time to come back and answer my questions! Good luck with your mms.
Great post and perfect timing for me. I just started my next project 🙂 I’ll be attempting a YA paranormal!
Great point about making the small scenes as interesting as the big plot turners. Too often I find myself rushing through them to get to the ‘good stuff’. It’s obvious when I go back and re-read my work that I rushed, and I end up spending more time fixing than I would have doing in the first place.
Excellent post. As a novice writer, I will take all your advice to heart. I want to write that story that will keep the reader turning pages. This is the biggest challenge in my life, yet so fascinating to explore.
If I win, here’s my address:
182 Schultz Rd
Vilonia, AR 72173
A WEALTH OF INFORMATION..THANK YOU FOR SHARING..HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY..
Wonderful post! Lots of good information I can put to use. Thank you for sharing!
Winners are….Abigail Sharpe and Maurine! Congrats and check your inboxes. 🙂
Did I win? I never got an email! 🙁
Maurine, the message was sent from email@example.com I just resent it.
Thanks. This is a great help. Having written one YA and half way through a new novel I can go to Chapter one and test the theory.
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