Monday, June 23, 2008

More on openings--

More on openings--

I took some pitches last week, and something struck me. Well, two somethings.

First, if you do something great in that first couple paragraphs, or even something pretty good, I'm going to read on. There aren't any rules beyond, "Don't be boring or confusing."

Second, if you want more guidance than that, try this. Focus. If you try to introduce everything—character, conflict, setting, situation, plot—in the first paragraph, along with a hooky first sentence and a clear viewpoint, well, maybe you can do it, but most of us couldn't. If you don't want to waste time trying, focus on one or two aspects to introduce here. If you do that well, then the reader will go on to the next paragraph or three, and in that time, you can fill in as many blanks as you think necessary.

Just try that—focus. Decide that you're going to introduce the setting, say, and you're not going to try to shoehorn the characters in there yet. Here's an example:

Medicine Creek, Kansas. Early August. Sunset.

The great sea of yellow corn stretches from horizon to horizon under an angry sky. When the wind rises the corn stirs and rustles as if alive, and when the wind dies down again the corn falls silent. The heat wave is now in its third week, and dead air hovers over the corn in shimmering curtains.

Still Life With Crows, by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston

Notice how focused that is. All setting, and a nice easy transit from visual (sea of corn) to audial —no big jump here, as the audial is still about corn. Even within that restricted focus, there's emotion, a sense of the ominous in the "angry sky" and "dead air." The setting information leads inexorably to the problem, the conflict—this area is in a heat wave.

Here's a more personal focus. The opening starts deep in the point-of-view of one character, introducing her and her immediate situation and conflict:


Still alive.


Awakening was hard, as always. The ultimate disappointment. It was a struggle to take in enough air to drive off nightmare sensations of asphyxiation. Lilith Iyapo lay gasping, shaking with the force of her effort. Her heart beat too fast, too loud. She curled around it, fetal, helpless. Circulation began to return to her arms and legs in flurries of minute, exquisite pains.

Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler

See how that opening establishes the voice too. We are in the head and body of Lilith, but by then end of that opening, we know we're in the authorial voice—a bit elevated, a bit removed.

There are all sorts of entries into your story. If you're having trouble, try this. Think about what is most imperative right this moment, the moment you open. Obviously, in the Butler passage, the heroine's dilemma is all-important, and see how quickly you're drawn in because the author doesn't try to tell us what the setting is (she suggests it's night, but little more than that) or make any general philosophical observation ("It is a truth universally acknowledged…") or show character interaction.

Watch how focused so many of the most memorable openings are:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

You see how this presents a generalization, and then particularizes it—it's universally acknowledged, yes, but the focus narrows to parents of marriageable daughters in the vicinity of a newly arrived rich man. And the next paragraph narrows it even further to a particular pair of parents, the Bennets. See how that conversation is precisely set up. The opening leads to "parents" not "girls". Imagine how that opening would be changed if it were meant to lead to Lizzie and Jane (the two older daughters) gossiping about the new arrival.

Another "philosophical opening:"

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Notice what is set up here—binary opposition (best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, etc.), and that is carried through to the particularization— this best-worst time is the time where England and France (also binary opposites here) have these particular pairs of monarchs. And notice that ironic last line-- that things in general were settled for ever. So here's a motif (opposition) which resolves (for the moment) into unity—in both these cities, everyone knew nothing would ever change. (Of course, that sets up that they're going to change.)

Those are both what I'd call "social novels," concerned with the interaction of people within a group or society. Austen's society is very small (the village and its genteel residents), and Dickens's is very large (the two largest nations at the time), but both books are about interactions and dynamics. (Of course, both books also have major characters who have journeys to make, but the scope is wider.)

"Social novels," I note, are for more likely to open with setting or idea/philosophy. In contrast, the "personal novel," like the Octavia Butler one, focuses more tightly on the journey of one or two characters. In a personal novel, you'll generally find a tighter "deep third" point of view, and the opening will preview that by starting inside the character's experience.

So if you aren't sure how to start your book, consider—is it a social novel or a personal novel? That might give you some direction for the opening.


Whirlochre said...

It's tempting to dish up the first paragraph with a ladle, forgetting most readers will only have a soup spoon.

Edittorrent said...

That's a good way to put it! The reader doesn't need everything, but just enough info and intrigue to keep on reading.