Many writers believe that most readers will only read a novel that grabs their attention from the first page. A dramatic episode must unfold in the first paragraph. I witnessed a workshop in which writers were coached to do just that. The leader liked anything with an immediate crisis, imminent death being the most desirable one–such as a character waking up in the hospital with all the tubes attached, or her favorite, the one facing execution.
Now, I didn’t expect the character facing execution to actually die. I realized either the protagonist would quickly escape this death, as it was not the main point of the story. Or possibly the author had pulled out the major crisis as prologue and I would have to read a good portion of back story before finding out how the main character survived.
Jumping into the middle of a conflict at the start of a novel is not a bad technique. Tolstoy modeled this in Anna Karenina, starting the story with an uproar as Dolly discovers her husband’s affair with their governess. However, this crisis does not last long due to the arrival of the major character, Anna Karenina. This charming lady persuades Dolly to remain with Stepan (who is also Anna’s brother.) Anna turns out to have the really challenging love life with its multiple twists and turns.
Most often this initial crisis turns out to be only as minor one, not the real crux of the story. The first chapter in a starter plot which will be resolved fairly quickly and the really difficult to solve conflict appears at a slower pace. The reader is quickly sucked in the story, but only into a minor subplot. Paying attention to details in the first chapter or so is not terribly necessary with this kind of draw-the-reader-in start. They could simply skip this section and the only result would be missing a few tidbits about the main dramatic conflict.
The author still the main work to do–creating compelling characters that the reader cares about as well as revealing a complex conflict that deepens in difficulty over time. A main conflict cannot be summarily solved by the wave of a hand or a simple impassioned plea at the end. As the reader movers further into Anna Karenina, there are numerous characters and details to attend to. There are sections in which multiple characters struggle with the meaning of life in this broad picture of Russian society.
Because its reputation, many readers are intimidated by Anna Karenina. They will not be drawn in to a huge tome by a being dropped into the action. That is the chance the author takes with this kind of kick-starting a story–attracting a reader who doesn’t have the patience to finish a book of any depth of complexity.
Back to the workshop–there was one beginning that caught my attention. The protagonist stood on a cliff side, staring down into water, and from the details I could gather it was a long drop. Something unnerving about the interior thoughts of the character led me to wonder what was wrong. Although there was no direct statement about suicidal thoughts, that seemed to be a possibility. The workshop leader felt this beginning had too many unanswered questions and wanted to find out the answers at the start of the story. But, that is exactly what drew me in. I wanted to keep on reading to uncover the conflict that this character struggled with so intensely.
The beginning of the story does not have to be action-packed. But, it should let readers know how invested they must be in the book to understand and enjoy it.