You will have heard this writing nugget, that the start of a novel is the most important section. Of course you have. All readers know this instinctively. They read the first page of a long story, see if anything in those first few paragraphs grabs them. The trick for the writer then is to make that first page catchy, intriguing in some way, as well as jump-start the story to come.
But we don’t read novels just for plot. We want to care about who takes us by the hand and leads us on this journey. We want to trust and like this person, or at the very least be captivated by him. Good or bad, this narrator must squeeze hard on our hands right off the bat, yanking us out of our everyday lives into a rollicking tale. So as writers we must cut to the chase. No lengthy descriptions please. No general loveliness. We want to, no we must, get this party started with a bang, not a whimper.
In my new novel, PLAN X, written under my nom de plume Rory Tate, I knew how the story would begin, with an actual bang, an explosion in a lab on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman. With a call-out to the police, answered by my heroine, a young officer just back from a Reserve tour in Iraq. But how to start in the action — this is a thriller after all — and also impart something of who my protagonist is? Because thriller or not, the inside story is about this character, what she’s seen, how she copes, who helps her cope.
Over a few drafts the lead-up to the 911 call about the explosion shrank, and shrank some more. I had some scene-setting, then it was gone. I had some decision-making, and then it was gone. Finally, I had her in the car, driving to the scene. That allowed me to add specific details about who she is. So this is the first page of PLAN X, the final version, draft too-many-to-count:
The night air rushed in the patrol car’s window, cooling Cody Byrne’s cheeks as she hit the pedal hard, siren blaring. Streetlights made pools of white on the empty blocks. She screeched around the last corner, smiling. Her Army unit would love this. They didn’t call her Speedy for nothing. Then, she entered the chaos zone: fire trucks, ambulances, patrol cars, sheriff’s cars, campus cruisers. Red and blue lights bounced over the scene. Smoke and flame roiled from windows on the corner of the second floor of a university building. A lab had exploded, dispatch said. In the dark it looked like a movie set, lit from within by a magical force.
Her heart was thumping through her uniform as she pulled the car to the curb. She jogged past cruisers and ducked under yellow tape, trying to contain the exhilaration. Action: god, she loved it. The tingling in her fingers, the edge so close. The thrill would engulf her with its seductive ways, wrapping its arms around her, hugging the fear out of her. Would excitement kill her or cure her? Was there any other way to live but like this, in the middle of everything?
She took a breath. The smoke was pungent. Stay calm. Right now she wanted it, all of it. The good, the bad, the freaking drama of it all. But she had to stay cool. Firefighters pulled on hazmat suits. Smoke, nerves, shouts of Now! Bro! Let’s do it! She wanted a chemical suit, a vest, a tank. She was just a police officer but she wanted to go.
Much of police work is tedious, paperwork, routine stuff. But like Cody Byrne, cops live for action. Like all our brave first responders, this is their moment, when tragedy strikes and they are needed.
Flames leapt from the windows. A television news crew arrived and jumped into the fray with their cameras and mikes. The smell of the scene was different, chemical. Orange licked the eaves, acrid smoke blackened the brick above. The throng of firemen shouting orders came together, broke apart, grabbed tanks. EMTs huddled with their kits, waiting their turn.
Then a blast rocked them. The air sucked in, then exploded over them. The concussion was terrifying, a blow to the solar plexus like the crush of an avalanche. Firemen closest to the building fell like dominos, blown onto their backs. Cody staggered sideways, her ears ringing as she threw herself to the ground behind the fire truck’s big tire. The boom echoed off the building opposite, reverberating as it came to rest. Gasping, she stared at the pavement under her cheek. The bile rose in her throat and for a second she thought she might throw up.
She looked at the asphalt, seeing it close, its hard, black gravel, its tar. This is where duty takes you. Into the thick of it, for better or worse. She believed in duty, she believed in action, and yet—
Someone grabbed her arm, pulling her upright, dusting her off. The juice pumped in her veins, telling her she’d made the wrong decision, that she should get the hell out of here. Her ears felt like they had cotton stuffed in them. She shook her head to clear them and stood her ground as she tucked her shoulder-length brown hair back into its tight bun and stuck her cap back on her head.
No running. Never.
The firefighters were on their feet again, with helmets and air packs and fire extinguishers, rushing toward the door. They disappeared into the smoke. Fools, all of them. Brave fools. Had they seen the bodies, the charred bits of the bone and flesh she’d seen? Her heart rose into her throat as a flashback to Iraq swept across her mind, another blast, another fire, the shiver of danger, of fear. No, not now. There was time enough for that in dreams.
And so it begins. Cody’s tale of the lab explosion and her inner story of wartime that has left her reeling. They happen side-by-side and the beginning the novel reflects that.
PLAN X will be published on June 15. Sign up for the mailing list to keep up to date! Click here.