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.