Love At First Chapter (Or, The Different Ways Different Books Have Kept Me Reading)

Recently, I've been addressing the beginning of my novel, finding that it's almost like dragging two semi-trailers through the snow with one of those elastic leashes that parents use for their children. So, I did what I always do whenever I find myself disenchanted by my capacity to form words, or incapacity therein - I turned to my bookshelf.

And what did I find there? I realised there are a few that snatched my interest basically from the get-go.

You may not have heard of JASPER JONES by Craig Silvey, but it's a cosy Australian mystery set in the 1960s, not technically YA, but starring a teenager. It's rather humble and deeply character-driven, with a sense of precociousness, but a desperate, childish ignorance and desire for understanding.

The novel opens with Charlie, our protagonist, who is visited in the middle of the night by the mixed-race Jasper Jones at his window. Jasper takes him out into the bushland surrounding their town, to his "spot", but also where Charlie is roped into a discovery. Well, a murder, but not committed by Jasper. And Charlie has to help hide the body, and keep the secret by day whilst venturing out at night with Jasper to find the killer. It's definitely intriguing.

But those characters. God, those characters. Endearing, flawed people. Young people, but so multifaceted that I wanted to watch their actions, watch how their lives and this discovery would entwine and even come to define them. One was clever but panicked, another embittered and wisened. Even eager and dismissive of barriers.

If you're writing a cosy novel, particularly with a controversial or conspiratorial element like murder and intrigue, and you've cast an everyman as your protagonist, I would definitely recommend you pick this up. Silvey handles the line between routine and plot expertly and the pacing is near perfect.

The next is not so much character-driven as it is concept-driven. That isn't a bad thing, either. Definitely not! It is really hard, and I mean really hard, to form any of substance from concept alone. You know the kind, and it really resonates with everyone in a different way, that makes you just stop and think Shit, I need to find more of this. What am I going to do when I finish? I wonder if there are films like this too. Maybe I could write a novel, or a short story, about this. Maybe there are reference texts on sale. For me, Gretchen McNeil's POSSESS was exactly that.

It's about a teenage exorcist, and it is clever and intriguing and filled with that air of awesome that watching Catholic-based supernatural films brings. Kind of like the fifth season of Supernatural. Well, ish. POSSESS began with the end of Latin class, where Bridget, our protagonist, is given a note. She meets her mentor, a priest, at a house after school where she then helps perform an exorcism on a woman.

POSSESS fought and fought against the paranormal YA stereotypes all the way through and it kept pushing them back with this superior, developing concept. Unlike a lot of demon or angel YA, it embraced its religious roots and decided to use the conspiracy within them to propel it forward. It's the fact that it snatches the reader by the concept in the beginning and holds it that makes it so impressive.

If you're aiming toward a strong conceptual presence in your novel, or if you have a hearty concept that plays a big role, this is a great example to read.

This next one, admittedly, is not so much about a beginning as much as my gushing over what I still regard as one of the finest plot-crafting I have ever witnessed. Rowling's HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE is almost entirely plot-driven and this here book is one of the reasons I tip my metaphoric hat to her always.

You can argue with my until you're blue, but not matter what Harry could have done, Barty Crouch Jr. had his plan so intricately tied around the boy's neck that he was always going to end up in that graveyard. Always. That core of suspicion and good vs. evil is so inherent in this novel, and Rowling, not so much in the rest of the series, manages her reveals and her intrigues so expertly that you're dying to know what the hell is going on. Dying. Every scene is imperative to the plot, and it all forms in a noose that hangs you and Harry in that final revelation that leaves you wondering how the bloody hell she managed to do that without you noticing.

I always preach this as my go-to novel for plot-driven works whenever anyone asks for a reference. It doesn't matter if you haven't read the rest of the series, if you have an intricate plot or a plot-driven novel, this is a must-read. This definitely resonates with me.

So, we know there are a lot of ways to hook your reader in those first ten or so pages, whether it be with a character voice or a concept or a bear-trap of a plot. Personally, I focus and am able to nitpick on plot because my work is plot-heavy, really, just plot-heavy.

Is your work character, concept or plot driven? Do you have multiple works you turn to for reference or as inspiration? What's an element that you find hooks you a lot? How often do you entwine character and plot focus?


Trisha at: December 11, 2011 at 4:17 PM said...

Most of my own works tend to be character driven, though I do have a few exceptions in my list. The exceptions are ones that need serious work on the characters but the plots are pretty cool as is. The characters though, are underdeveloped.

Great post as usual Nina!

Aimee L. Salter at: December 11, 2011 at 5:42 PM said...

Yay! I can comment again! Woot! :)

But as to your question....I think mine is concept driven, but over the course of three books, the two main characters are (hopefully) the reason readers keep coming back. I guess we'll find out. One day. I hope...

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