Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Same plot, different openings

The opening of your story should promise what you want to promise. And that is going to depend a whole lot on what the story IS.

A comedy, for example, might (or might not... depending) use a deceptively bright opening-- the sunny beach with nice sunbathers everywhere-- to set up a comically disastrous afternoon; that is, relying on surprise to startle laughter out of the readers. Paradoxically, a tragedy might start with a happy scene, again to set up the contrast between what is to come.

It all depends. :) But you are dealing with reader expectation, and you should think about what that is and how you'll use it. Snicket is dealing with a child reader's expectation that stories usually have happy endings. That exists BEFORE the child picks up the book, so Snicket plays with it.

Another author, however, might know that children expect that happy ending, and go in the opposite direction, using that expectation to lull the reader into a state of relaxation. I've always found the opening of Little Women paradoxically terrifying (in retrospect), because it shows the Ordinary World of the four girls to be, despite their poverty, a place of family love and security. I remember very clearly how unprepared I was for what happened later in the book (you know—I still can't deal with it openly— B d-ing). Of course, now I see that I was being set up for the most painful of crashes because that first scene makes the promise, "If you have love, you will be happy." Ha! As if! Those sisters loved each other and their mother and father and see what that horrible cruel author did to them! (You can tell, I'm not yet over this. :)

Most of the time, however, there's a silent conspiracy between author and reader. The opening events promise a sort of book, and that's what the reader gets. However, as I said, it's a silent conspiracy. It's not as obvious as Snicket's opening paragraph. You generally aren't going to get a first scene that says, "This is a thriller. That means you can expect chills and thrills, and also don't be surprised if I reveal the identity of the villain very early, and don't waste a lot of brain cells trying to find the REAL villain, because he IS the real villain, you dolt. This is a thriller—an emotional experience—not a mystery—an intellectual experience. So settle down, turn off the higher brain, and prepare to be scared, okay?"

No, the author doesn't say it outfront like that; rather the first scene usually prepares the reader for this type of book, and the reader knows what to expect and so isn't disappointed when that's what happens in the book.

Let's take an example. Now I should make clear that the same basic plot can be done in different ways to produce different genres or types of stories. A murder can be the initiating event in the external plot for almost any type of story, not just a mystery or thriller. I just had someone email me and ask if a murder can be the start of a relationship story, where a mother and daughter reconcile. Sure. A murder can be a central or initiating event in a relationship story, a romance, a romantic suspense, a horror story, a comedy, a thriller, a suspense novel (which is different from a romantic suspense), a mystery, a legal thriller, a medical thriller, a family saga, a s/f novel, a psychological drama… really almost anything. Murder is the sort of big culturally significant event that will always get our attention.

But… each type of book is likely to have an opening consonant with its purpose (to horrify, thrill, bring a couple together, explore psychology, etc.). You know as a reader what an opening means. Haven't you ever been in a certain mood and wanted a certain type of book? I was recently undergoing a stressful time—just too much work, the usual—and I didn't want to read anything agitating, so I wouldn't get past page 10 in a book that opened like a thriller would. I still love murder mysteries, however, no matter what mood I'm in, so I wasn't about to dispense with the whole dead body thing. But I found myself reading—somewhat compulsively—the Brother Cadfael mysteries (which are beautifully written and realized, and I highly recommend). These start out, almost always, with a scene of order or routine or camaraderie in the Ordinary World (Cadfael's monastery). Then—and only then—the order would be disrupted by a death, but never of anyone we really cared about (not like that evil Little Women, grumble). And then Cadfael would out the murderer and order would be restored.

My point is… I could read the first scene and know what I was going to get, and if I were in the right mood for this type of book, I'd continue reading. Because I am, of course, a savvy, sophisticated reader, I can sense from the emphasis of the first scene what the book was going to be, and so I'm primed to get what I expect. This is kind of like the publisher putting the genre or sub-genre on the spine of the book, or the bookseller shelving it in a certain area. If you are in the "horror" section of the bookstore, well, you expect horror in those books, right?

But… something I've noticed in submissions is how often that opening scene is a mismatch with what the story is supposed to be. I edit erotic romance, and while I certainly don't expect explicit sex in that first chapter, I do expect a heightened presentation of the sensual realm in some way. I also expect, even if the romantic couple don't meet early, that there is the opportunity for or intimation of romance-to-come, and that might be as simple as the heroine being presented as "alone" in the first scene. (Just as with the Snicket excerpt above, the "aloneness" suggests its negation—the Baudelaire children presumably have been separated from their parents, and the solitary heroine is ready, if not willing, to be joined by someone else.) A submission that starts with, say, a young couple proudly showing off their new home, or an army grimly vanquishing the enemy, doesn't "feel" like romance to me, and it's not going to "feel" like a romance to my house's customers.

Okay, so let's get some examples. Let's start with an easily adaptable plot. Sarah, a young woman, goes to the funeral home to deal with the necessities of burying her Uncle Wally. She realizes somehow he was actually murdered, though everyone has assumed the cause of death was natural or an accident.

Now, assume that this really is adaptable and we can add or change to this basic plot. (Like maybe in the end she's going to solve the murder, or maybe she's going to marry the cop who helps her solve the murder, or maybe she's going to get murdered herself—whatever you want.) BUT… you have decided that this is going to be a certain genre or type of book. What I'm suggesting is that even given a similar set of plot events, different genres will produce different openings.

So let's look at a few possibilities, then maybe get more subtle.

Maybe you're an avid reader of Miss Marple novels and you want this to be a cozy mystery. What would you start with? I'd say… first, Sarah can't have been that close to Uncle Wally, because cozy mysteries are cozy precisely because there's not a lot of horror and sorrow associated with the death, hence the victim is usually not important emotionally to the sleuth. So… if we want it to be clearly a cozy, we might start with a scene that emphasizes Sarah's distance from the victim. She could get a call from a hospital saying that her Uncle Wally has her listed as next of kin, and she needs to come deal with his body, and she could say, "Who is Uncle Wally?" and only later figure out that he's her late father's longlost brother. Or if you wanted to start closer to the mystery (the discovery that he was in fact murdered), you could have her arriving at the funeral home and explaining to the director that no, she doesn't have a photo of him for the funeral program because she only just found out he existed. See how that sets up the "coziness"—which emphasizes the intellectual aspect of the mystery by showing the distance between the sleuth and victim, but also establishes a psychological need on the sleuth's part to solve this (because she's "next of kin").

Now imagine another author-scenario -- you're up for tenure at a university and your stuffy colleagues will be most impressed with a literary psychological novel (which just happens to have a murder in it… hey, it worked for Umberto Eco!). How would you start this book in a "literary/psychological" way that will make your tenure committee think you haven't been dilettantishly reading Agatha Christie novels in your library carrel? What sort of opening will promise a literary or psychological read?

Some other opportunities: Maybe you really are interested in exploring possibilities of, I don't know, how societies in the future will deal with dead bodies (so the funeral home is actually going to shoot the coffin off the space ship into space). What would you do in that first scene to present this as a science fiction novel that just happens to have a murder in it?

What about the subtle gradations of the other standard "crime novel" sub-genres? How would this plot be started in a thriller novel?

In a legal thriller?

In a medical thriller?

In a suspense novel?

In a romantic suspense novel?

In a private-eye novel?

In a police procedural?

In a mystery (not cozy) novel?

And let's transport this to other genres:

How would you start this in a science fiction novel?

In a romance novel?

In an erotica novel?

In a horror novel?

In a western?

In a comedy?

Your turn! Pick one or more of those options and sketch out an opening that previews that sort of book. Post that in the comments section, and we'll use some as examples. :)


Keri Ford said...

Sarah Smith gasped and turned around after walking in Uncle Wally’s house and finding him face-down on the floor with a knife in his back. Before stepping over the thresh hold, the screen-door off the back porch slammed and she ran out the front in time to see her own father sprint around the side of the house and into the next yard.

Running in the opposite direction, she dug for her cell phone and ran into John Johnson, ex-high school jock, ex-high school sweetheart, but more importantly, current police dog trainer.

He held her steady by her shoulders. “What’s the matter?”

Sarah turned and pointed at her uncle’s house, unable to say she just found him dead and thought her father was the killer. John lowered her to the sidewalk and commanded the German Sheppard to sit next to her while he went in the direction of Uncle Wally—if she could even call him that since she’d just learned of her adoption. Uncle Wally had been the only person she knew who would tell her anything of her birth parents and strange record-less adoption.

Anonymous said...

Through some perverse quirk the middle finger of Uncle Wally's left hand refused to curve while the remaining fingers refuse to straighten. Had he been flipping someone off at the moment of his death? Sarah wouldn't have been surprised, the old crank.

"Do you know the deceased?" The police officer who asked stood on the other side of Uncle Wally's drawer in the morgue.

He was a sexy man, to die for, really. His brown hair would feel like velour under her fingers. Sally knew because she'd once had a boyfriend with the same short haircut. The officer's eyes, like milk chocolate left on the dashboard until it reached the perfect level of softness offered his condolences. There was no ring on his finger. Sarah would have done something about that even in the morgue on the other side of poor Uncle Wally's body if Aunt Sue hadn't walked in right then.

Oh boy. If Aunt Sue saw the state of Uncle Wally's hands they'd never hear the end of it. Sarah slapped a hand over his and pivoted toward her aunt.

"Nope. Never saw him a day in my life. Wrong body, Aunt Sue. Better not look. It's grizzly. In fact, I'll meet you out in the car as soon as I've had a word with the police."

Edittorrent said...

So... I'd guess the first example is maybe romantic suspense?

Second is comedy, but maybe kind of chick-lit comic romance?

What do you all say?


smoothseas said...

Sarah Staniec hated the smell of carnations. Their heady scent assaulted her as she waited in the empty reception parlor of Rest Haven Memorial Garden. Sarah’s stomach revolted. Whether it was the fragrance of the flowers or the recent bouts of morning sickness, she needed to find the loo. Now.

But the front desk was unattended, and there was no one around to ask. Sarah closed her eyes and focused. She took one deep, steadying breath. Then another, concentrating hard on the relaxation techniques she’d learned from her midwife. Eventually the dizziness passed and she was able to think more clearly.

Her late, great Uncle Al had been the proverbial black sheep of the family. She’d never really known her father’s oldest brother. She only knew of him, from the stories and anecdotes retold at all the family gatherings. Some had been humorous. And others, admittedly, shocking.

Conversely, he hadn’t known her either. So, why had he named her executor of his estate? A very vast estate, at that. Literally worth millions, if any credence was to be placed in family rumor. But for now, that was still speculation; his will was yet to be read.

Sarah tapped her foot, then checked her watch. She wanted this over and done with, to catch the first flight back across the pond. Just as she was about to go search out a staff member, a tall, white-haired gentleman, in a dignified suit, approached.

He gave a small, sympathetic nod, and offered Sarah his hand, covering both of hers with his. “Do you represent the Staniec family?”

“Yes, I’m Sarah. I’m his niece.”

“We’re about to start the preparations. If you’d like to view the body, please come with me.”

Sarah nodded her head.

She followed him down a long hall, then down a steep flight of stairs and into the basement. Down here, the lighting was stark, not muted; and the smell of formaldehyde replaced the scent of funeral sprays.

He opened a door, then stepped back, allowing her to precede him into the room. A body lay on a steel gurney, a white cloth draped over the corpse. Sarah steeled herself. Of course, she’d seen dead people before. But never like this.

“I’d like to offer my personal condolences on the loss of your Uncle Walter,” the man said, preparing to pull back the sheet. “I knew Wally well. We belonged to the same fraternal organization. We were lodge brothers for years.”

“But my uncle’s name was Albert. There must be some mistake.”

Edittorrent said...

Wow, talk about ending on a cliffhanger. Smoothseas, you've done a really nice job with your...cozy mystery! (Did I get it right?)


smoothseas said...

Thanks, Theresa, for the kudos…

A cozy mystery, you ask? A cozy, romantic, mystery, maybe. I didn’t give it any thought before starting, actually. I just took the premise, and ran.

Is it ok to submit two?

Late last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I sat at my computer and wrote another. I didn’t target this time, either. I just let the words come. Below is my pre-dawn effort.

Thanks again,
Linda in St. Petersburg, where it’s almost cool enough to warrant breaking out the smudge pots.

p. s. What an exercise in fun, Ladies. Could we possibly do it again?

smoothseas said...

Twelve noon was the middle of Sarah Starchild’s night. So it was no wonder, that when her bedside phone rang at seventeen minutes after, she chose to ignore it. But even putting both of her pillows over her head didn’t silence its incessant clamor.

Sarah gave up. Fumbling for the receiver, she pressed it to her ear, then scrubbed at her face with the back of her hand. “…..’allo?”

“This is Detective Allen with Homicide South. Are you Sarah Starchild?”

There were a lot of things Sarah didn’t like in this world, but being rousted from a deep sleep was near to the top of her list. Her neighbor’s yapping Yorkie, which she could now hear through their communal wall, ran a close second.

“So you say…” Sarah said, suppressing a yawn, along with her growing irritation. “And I’m not admitting to being anybody until I know for certain to whom I’m speaking.”

The protracted pause, on the other end of the line, stretched into long seconds. Sarah was about to hang up when the caller said, “Look, Miss Starchild, if you doubt my veracity, you can call the station. Ask for Toby Allen. They’ll connect you to my desk.”

“S’ok… I believe you...” Sarah pulled the sheet up to her chin. She wanted nothing more, than to roll right over, and sleep till the crack of dusk. “Just tell me what you want, so I can get back to bed.”

“I’m calling about your Uncle. Walter War—”

“My Uncle Walter? I don’t have an Uncle Walter. Are you sure you’ve got the right number?”

“Walter Wargacki? Resided at one-one-two-seven Riverside Drive?” His voice, deep and throaty, held an edge of practiced patience. “Your number was in his cell. He’d flagged you as a niece.”

Walter Wargacki? Uncle Wally? Sarah was now fully awake. Scooting up in bed, she leaned back against the headboard, thinking how she’d gladly trade her latest implants for a large cup of hot Starbucks right about now.

“Mr. Wargacki isn’t my uncle. He’s my client.”

“Were you his therapist?”

Alerted by his continued use of the past tense, Sarah was suddenly cautious. “Why? Has something happened to him?”

“His body was found this morning. Floating in the Hudson.”

“While I’m awfully sorry to hear that, I’m afraid I can’t be of any help to you, Detective.”

“I’m sure you’re aware, that client confidentially is no longer extant, once a patient becomes deceased. Court orders take time, Ms. Starchild, but the department can, and will, get one. Or, you can share what you know and assist us in resolving this case.” He waited a beat, before adding, “bottom line…it’s your choice.”

Sarah swallowed hard. Who cared what he thought? The truth would come out eventually. Why not just admit it now? “You’re mistaken, Detective Allen. I’m not Walter’s thearpist.. I’m his dominatrix.”

Edittorrent said...

That latest seems more like a chicklitty detective-- not cozy. :)

One point:
“This is Detective Allen with Homicide South. Are you Sarah Starchild?”

There were a lot of things Sarah didn’t like in this world, but being rousted from a deep sleep was near to the top of her list. Her neighbor’s yapping Yorkie, which she could now hear through their communal wall, ran a close second.
This seems a bit non sequiturish-- that is, he's just told her he's a homicide cop, and she's a couple steps behind, mad that the phone rang. I'd suggest moving that second paragraph to BEFORE he speaks-- the phone wakes her up, she thinks how much she hates being awakened, he tells her he's a homicide cop-- consider how she'd respond to that "homicide"-- "Did I kill someone?" maybe? That is, that seems to beg a very particular response. What do you think?