Wednesday 27 March 2024

Where to Start, by Claire Fayers

When you're starting a new book, where do you start?

I ask because I recorded a podcast interview with a young reader on Saturday. We were discussing my latest book, Tapper Watson and the Quest for the Nemo Machine, and nine-year-old Jan said he found the book slow at the start but the story picked up when Tapper's space submarine arrived at Earth. This really made me think, because in my many and varied drafts I'd spend a long time bouncing the first chapter from Earth to outer space and back again. In the end, I decide if I was going have a space river filled with memories, I should lead with that. 

According to Will Storr in The Science of Storytelling, you should start at the moment of change. The Hero's Journey template starts with the hero's everyday life before the call to adventure happens. One of my recent favourites, Bonnie Garmus's Lessons in Chemistry jumps in near the end and tells much of the story in flashback.

Thinking about this has made me look again at some classic stories to see where they begin.

Pride and Prejudice - a rich bachelor arrives in a small town, sending the mothers of eligible girls into a frenzy.

The Iliad - The rage of Achilles throws the siege of Troy into turmoil.

The Lord of the Rings - Bilbo Baggins announces his biggest and grandest birthday party ever.

My most recent favourite fantasy ever, Lud-in-the-Mist, begins with a leisurely description of the Free State of Dorimare, close to the Debatable Hills, the border of fairyland. Although there has been no intercourse between Dorimare and fairyland for two hundred years, the author tells us, which subtly suggests intercourse is about to happen and the people of Dorimare won't like it.

The opening of a book has to do so many things: introduce the world and the characters, tell the reader what kind of story this will be, hint at conflict to come. And, of course, it's got to hook the interest of the reader, and there's no more critical reader than a child. 

If you're writing fantasy or sci-fi where everything is different, how do you signal that the change at the start of a story is actually something new for the characters and not just business as usual?

 I'd be interested in your thoughts.


 Claire Fayers


1 comment:

Nick Garlick said...

Fascinating post. If it's all right to talk about a story I'm writing, I think the answer is to begin with an incident the reader will identify with. I start my dystopian tale with my young lead the only arrival at a dark train station, tripping and hurting her knee. She's then left all alone because her official designation is 'Orphan' and nothing stops for them. So I hope I've suggested that this future world is cruel and ruthless, and that my heroine is totally alone. I think a young reader would identify with that.