CRAFT: Opening scenes and the promise to the reader

Here are my notes from the mystery conference about opening your novel with a good first impression–a narrative hook.

A narrative hook, eh? What a novel idea for a novel! Yawn!

Sure, we hear about this all the time. You’ve got to have an irresistibly intriguing, interesting, and come-on-what-did-*that*-mean hook. But the first few lines of your story can’t be just weird absurdities out of the blue, like some MadLibs scribble or one of the sentences that a junkmail generator comes up with to get past the Spam filter.

What DO you have to have to get past the first-reader filter (according to the workshop presenters)? Your narrative hook also has to serve as the Contract/Promise with the reader, and it must show the reader the book’s true tone, voice, and vibe. If you promise what you can’t (or don’t) deliver, you’ll lose the reader; if you start out light-hearted and witty and then slam readers down into one of those Misery Reads about somebody whose child is squashed by a giant citrus juicer while on a tour of the Florida orange groves, you’ll lose the reader and everyone the reader knows (because they’ll all hear about this awful book that tried to trick the reader.) If you open with an extremely tense scene involving saving the world and then ramp down the tension (which is just about guaranteed if you start in the middle of something Really Exciting), it’s going to feel as if the book has slowed down, even if you don’t have a sudden attack of backstory, a flashback to the hero’s childhood, or an infodump.

So what do we do?

We draw the reader into the story. We promise the type of story we’re going to deliver (dark, light-hearted, funny, fantastical/realistic, a whodunit) and show a fascinating character (or two) engaged in an interesting situation or activity. That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?

Agent Natasha Kern told me years ago that my _Little Rituals_ didn’t win her because it failed one of her tests. She says that you must show an appealing character engaged in the pursuit of her Heart’s Desire. The story is about her striving, searching, and attaining (or finding out why she shouldn’t/can’t attain) her heart’s desire. I find this cool because I haven’t ever heard anyone else put it quite that way.

I think this is a recent development, as books in the past didn’t demand that characters were always going after something like that right away, but people are impatient now. Your character can be reaching for that heart’s desire (or plausibly not attaining and/or changing what the desire is) along with going through the story action. Still pretty easy, eh? (Ha!)

Don’t count on an appealing narrative voice holding them. Don’t count on great writing keeping them riveted. Don’t even put all your eggs in the clever-plot basket.

In your novel’s opening, you make promises that you will fulfill.

* Events described in the first scene are relevant to the story that follows, not just something that catches thy attention.

* Characters in the opening are significant players in the story–except for bit players and walk-ons, who don’t even get named. You can’t have the reader imprinting on Blue Shirt Kid #3 who’s about to fall off the Brooklyn Bridge and be eaten by loan sharks.

* The mood, diction, and vibe is true to the story. You don’t have a page-turner opening followed by a leisurely character-development story, or a frantically action-packed or dark opening followed by a funny, light-hearted romp.

* The narrative voice must stay the same–you need to sustain that witty tone all the way through, rather than turning dark or contemplative on them halfway to the end

* Conflicts hinted at early on will be resolved and loose ends that you set up will get tied up. Nothing is “forgotten” that you used as a tantalizing “bait” for readers early on.

* Themes established in the opening will be explored through the story’s events, not just tossed in and then forgotten about

* Be consistent and realistic. Consider future actions and don’t make impossible things happen later on that would have been ruled out by the clever stuff you said in the opening–this needs to be addressed at revision time, as well, because you’ll come up with ideas as you write

Well, OK. But *how* to begin?

Often, an established author begins a novel the way a director begins a film: with an establishing shot. The widescreen Technicolor image splashes onto the pixelfield; the camera’s eye pans across the peaks of the Smoky Mountains or across tousled heads at a rock concert as people hold up their lighted Bics and chant “Heart, Heart, Heart.” I double-dog dare you to count the films that start with an establishing shot of New York City, many of them with a shot of the Twin Towers, which is kind of melancholy-inducing for me today–films from Manhattan to you-name-it do this. The viewer gets an eyeful of the skyline or the crowd and gets the idea about where the book is set–and you’re THERE before the action comes at you.

Then the lens zooms in on one head in the crowd . . . or on one speaker before the crowd . . . or on “That Girl” throwing her hat into the air. Now you know who’s going to lead us through the story. In prose, this is when the first line of dialogue or the first “I was sitting in row four when the amplifiers exploded into a riot of Roman candles” line comes, and we’re in the narrator’s mind.

Okay, I see this all the time. However, I wonder whether this is always a good idea for a new (ha–“new” I would not call myself) novelist. *sigh*

Another version of this is the philosophical opening, the “I’m telling you a secret about myself” opening that then segues to the action. This is the one I use in _Little Rituals_ because it’s really a literary novel. Vonnegut uses this all the time. *I* like it, but again it’s likely not the way to go unless you are in an MFA program and you have a mentor and you’re going to be promoted as a new literary voice, IMHO. Anyhow, I thunk I oughter mention it.

If you open with a character’s deep thoughts, some percentage of your readers will always think that is slow or pretentious. Whether the opening {“Control yourself,” Daddy always told her, but this time she couldn’t} is intriguing or irritating may depend on whether you’re Nora or Nobody. I’m just sayin’.

If you invent a setting the way I often/usually do, the establishing shot opening may not be all that useful. You might have to add more words than the reader has patience for. But you might be able to pull it off . . . Faulkner did okay.

Setting, though, if you’re doing a historical, futuristic, or time-travel, *can* be a good way to start. Or you could just use a slugline like “Salem, Massachusetts, 1673” above the first paragraph of the chapter.

Setting is often a character. It can establish mood and foreshadow the general tone of events. The more exotic you can make it, and the more excited readers are to know about it because it’s weird or the rich kids’ playground, the better.

Here’s an opening I hate and avoid: the “Dear Diary” opening that cracks the fourth wall into shards. (Yes, first person narratives often break the fourth wall, but this “My name is Lisa” stuff is irritating, like the character looking into a mirror to describe her pink hair and orange eyes and green Munster complexion.) The first Sue Grafton book begins “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator . . . thirty-two, twice divorced, no kids.” Yawn!!! The next line is what *I* would have opened with: “The day before yesterday I killed somebody.” That would interest me.. Then she could SHOW the rest and have someone address the character by name (or she could answer the phone using her name.) In fact, I would bet you a trip up the California coast that if I sent in a book with that kind of opening, I would hear all the flak in the world about how stooopid and useless I was for doing it that way. But Grafton got it pubbed and became the Anointed. Well, we already know what kind of shit luck I have, so let’s pass by this with a stern salute to those who get away with it. Still, I think you can come up with a better opening than that.

Even if you come up with a weirdo freak twist on it: “My appellation is John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, as is yours, and I’m dangling naked above the surface of the planet Mongo in order to demonstrate that the Tyme-X Watch takes a licking and keeps on ticking–even when it’s a Mayagolian Ronibeast doing the licking with its spiked tongue and acid-bath saliva!”

Actually, that might be an interesting story. But if I wasted time writing it, it’d just be rejected, so oh well.

I also hate it when a story opens with, “It was noon on a hot August fifteenth in Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth when I ran over the Mormon missionary with my steamroller.” It reminds me of “Webster’s Third New International defines ‘jackass’ as the rear part of a donkey” openings to tired schoolchildren’s essays. I think you could show the time and date and so forth instead of telling. But that’s just me again.

“An iridescent school of neon tetras shimmied through the bubbles rising from the bubble wand at the back of the thirty-gallon tank’s multicolored gravel. I pressed the SHRINK button on my transmogrifier and joined them.”

So now we are making a first impression, and you have your telling details picked out, and you aren’t going to do an establishing shot or a “My name is Mary Sue and I am a product of an authorial flight of wish-fulfillment about becoming a Spy Girl” thing. What are you doing instead?

The Day Something Changed–and the book opens just before this event. You can start in the middle of a scene and let ’em figure it out. Not a TOO EXCITING scene, but an intriguing one that will let you ramp up the tension rather than have to let it drop suddenly. Either Ursula LeGuin or James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) once said something like, “Begin at midnight the day the world ends, a thousand feet underground and in the middle of a nuclear war, and DON’T TELL THEM.” You do need to sneak in a few details to keep from confusing the reader, as Anna Genoese (in a paid critique–she’s doing them now at reasonable rates) said I was doing in _Lasernight_ when I didn’t explain the Jetsons setting so that she could grok it immediately. But don’t tell readers stuff they can figure out for themselves, as readers enjoy doing that and then feeling clever.

The point is, with this opening scene you have raised one or more story questions. You have not started too early (boring stuff before the action) or too late (action is in full bloom, but we have no reason to care whether the characters succeed or not), and you have an unusual situation rather than a ho-hum mundane thing that bores readers. The doormat has turned into a trap door, and the reader has fallen into your maze. Now you have to keep things going. Good luck!

Workshop leaders also suggested that you might begin with an interesting, obscure, useful tidbit of info that is relevant to the story. “Oscar Wilde wrote ‘Salome’ in French to avoid prosecution on obscenity charges. . . .” Readers like to feel they are learning something. But it does have to come into play in the story later on. John D. MacDonald does this in a couple of his books, but not always in the opening–sometimes in a chapter opening, sometimes in the middle of a chapter. An arcane fact or trivia question/answer can be great if you can work it into the mystery later such that readers yell, “Of course!” However, I think this is chancy for unknowns. Often, agents will react immediately with “what the hell does that have to do with anything?” and claim that you don’t have forward motion of the story and/or that you are doing throat-clearing. So I’m not going to cover that one in detail. IF you can get away with it, cool. Let me know where to pick up the book.

Opening with dialogue can work well, but you have to be certain that readers can figure out who is speaking. This might let readers click into a character right away, in a sense, because they’ll get the speech pattern and personality of the character. Still, you have to make sure it’s not confusing. You need to have it be non-trivial dialogue, IMHO. Something that intrigues.

Again, be sure that the dialogue is directed at a main character and/or said by a main character. Otherwise, you risk having readers assume that Mary Sue is going to be Our Heroine, and then when she gets killed by the Martians on page five, the reader will throw the book against the wail, having been jerked out of the POV character as she melts into plasmaforce energy. This is why I hate the film “Mars Attacks” so much. But I digress. (How out of character pour moi.)

So here’s a shot at an opening that might fulfill one or more of the criteria we listed.

Jinks Milgrom was dead–I buried her myself–so when she rushed past me during the drag show, making brief but definite eye contact, I couldn’t help being a little taken aback.

She recognized me, I was sure, because she gave a little gasp and tossed her red spiral curls over her shoulder the way she always used to whenever she saw me across the room.

“Jinks!” I couldn’t help exclaiming aloud as I dropped my rum and cola (letting it splash out on the cocktail napkin) and leaped out of my chair. Nearly knocking over my erstwhile companions–the others from the bachelorette party for a co-worker, all cheering and jeering for the act onstage who was doing a passable imitation of Shirley Bassey–I rushed toward her as she headed backstage.

Definitely a connection there–that eye contact–although I figured it was accidental, not deliberate. But she outpaced me by a good bit. I lost sight of her a couple of times in the smoky haze, elbowing my way through the rowdy, standing-room-only crowd. People in all kinds of costumes enjoyed shouting after me, “The term is PARDON ME, dear,” but I didn’t have time to waste apologizing. One fellow actually grabbed both my elbows and tried to detain me, but an employee caught hold of him and started to scold him for whatever it was he thought the guy was going to do. I took the opportunity to scurry around and caught sight of Jinks again, just in time as she disappeared through a swinging door.

I followed her down a dark hall and into a dressing room. The door didn’t quite close before I hit it. I ran up to someone with her back to me–who then yanked off the nylon wig and turned around to reveal an angry glare and a completely different face. And a baritone voice. “What?” he boomed out. Menacingly.

I backpedaled. After all, I was a hundred pounds lighter and more fragile. “Oh, I’m sorry . . . I was following my college roommate, I mean the woman I roomed with in college a few years ago–Jinks is her name. Does she work here?” I tried the old eyelash-flutter, though it hadn’t been working as well since I hit thirty.

The glare didn’t change. “Look, lady, you’re not allowed back here. I’m going to call the bouncer.”

“No need, no problem–I mean, I’m leaving. Just a mistake, that’s all. I’m not a plastercaster or any other stripe of hanger-on.” I backed away, plonking straight into another buxom blonde who was on her way in. She/he cackled as I bounced off his/her fake rubber boobs.

“Where did you get that dress, child?” said the blonde, who was of Caribbean heritage. From very large Caribbeans. “That wrap style on you is loud and clear, and what it says is, ‘Hello, Boobs.'” He examined said anatomical features appreciatively and laughed.

I barely avoided getting manhandled as I backed away, spluttering. Either I’d had one too many Rusty Anchorettes and was hallucinating or somebody’d pulled the ol’ switcheroo, because I knew who I’d seen, and these people weren’t her. During that brief instant when I’d lost sight of her . . . Jinks had gotten away.

Hmm. I never used my first-person narrator’s name in this. But I would do that fairly soon, when she gets back to the table where her friends are wondering where she’s gone. It might raise a story question, though. Didn’t do much with the setting and the details. I could tweak that up a bit, if it didn’t slow down the action.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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