How to Not Be Boring
and other thoughts on novel writing
You know that feeling when you walk into a great house? Or even just an interesting house? The feeling you get that things are in order, or aren’t. The feeling of the home being well-composed or chaotic. The sense you get of the kind of person who lives there. Maybe the entryway opens onto a living room filled with natural light, or maybe the front door brings you face to face with stacks of old magazines and discarded shoes.
The opening paragraphs of a novel are like the entryway to a home. They should be inviting. They should inspire people to come in, look around. They should include enough clues to let the visitor know what kind of world she is entering, but they shouldn’t be so packed with stuff that the visitor gets sensory or information overload.
In Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice, Colum McCann writes:
The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.
This got me thinking about how change is at the heart of story. Without change, there is no story. You should begin your novel or story with the idea that something is going to change at any moment, and your reader should be able to feel that urgency too.
In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron writes:
When we pick up a book, we’re jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass.
Your job as a novelist isn’t to write a sentence so beautiful that you think it ought to be set to music. Beautiful sentences are great, unless the sentences convey no story. No, your job as a novelist is to tell a story, and in the process of telling that story, to not be boring.
If your first paragraph is a languid and lovely description of landscape, you might lose your readers before they get to the end of the first page. Landscape, in general, does not feel active. It does not feel urgent. It feels, instead, like a writer attempting to be writerly. Of course, there are times when the landscape is exactly the right way to begin your novel; there is no hard and fast rule about how to begin. But if there’s no compelling reason to put description first, then start with character, with trouble, with whatever is urgent, crucial, and out of the ordinary.
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of two story collections and five novels, including the psychological thriller THE MARRIAGE PACT, which will be published in summer of 2017, with foreign editions forthcoming in 27 languages.