Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Strong Beginnings: One Example

I thought it might be useful to take a look at a strong beginning that emphasizes the ordinary world of the story, but before we do that, I want to make one other comment about my last post.

Alicia is absolutely right. You want to send your best work in at all times--though I have a hard enough time remembering what day it is and am unlikely to remember a laughably bad submission from months ago. (Though I'm afraid the "onion cryer" -- tears leeked from her eyes -- will be stuck in my mind for some time to come.)

My subtle point in that post was that I wanted you all to get a glimpse (blurry and vague, but a glimpse nonetheless) of what a stack of submissions looks like from this end of things. In that particular batch it would have been very easy for a solid submission to have leaped out at me. Instead, I got submission after submission with the same basic problems. Sloppy prose. Inattention to detail. Characters and plots that disappeared behind a thick wall of clutter. If you can avoid even these basic problems, you will rise above most of the competition.

OK, enough of that. Let's talk prose.

I first became aware of Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas at a conference last year when her agent, Sara Megibow, told a story about finding the manuscript in her slush pile. Since then I've heard some other buzz about this title, so I went over to the Amazon page to check it out. Street date isn't until March, but there's an excerpt of the first chapter posted. Take a look:

Only one kind of marriage ever bore Society's stamp of approval.

Happy marriages were considered vulgar, as matrimonial felicity rarely kept longer than a well-boiled pudding. Unhappy marriages were, of course, even more vulgar, on a par with Mrs. Jeffries's special contraption that spanked forty bottoms at once: unspeakable, for half of the upper crust had experienced it firsthand.

No, the only kind of marriage that held up to life's vicissitudes was the courteous marriage. And it was widely recognized that Lord and Lady Tremaine had the most courteous marriage of them all.

In the ten years since their wedding, neither of them had ever uttered an unkind word about the other, not to parents, siblings, bosom friends, or strangers. Moreover, as their servants could attest, they never had spats, big or small; never embarrassed each other; never, in fact, disagreed on anything at all.

However, every year some cheeky debutante fresh from the schoolroom would point out—as if it weren't common knowledge—that Lord and Lady Tremaine lived on separate continents and had not been seen together since the day after their wedding.

Her elders would shake their heads. Foolish young girl. Wait 'til she heard about her beau's piece on the side. Or fell out of love with the man she married. Then she'd understand what a wonderful arrangement the Tremaines had: civility, distance, and freedom from the very beginning, unencumbered by tiresome emotions. Indeed, it was the most perfect marriage.

OK. That's 244 words by my count, and those 244 words accomplish a lot. I bet each of you, regardless of your personal like/dislike of the excerpt or romance in general, already has enough information to understand the ordinary world. Two characters, husband and wife, estranged since the day of their marriage, in a world where polite marital estrangement is the norm. In fact, these characters are applauded for their civility even as their estrangement is condoned. Right? Of course. It's spelled out very clearly. The norms are defined.

I bet you can even figure out where the story is going -- it's about how these two characters reconcile, and based on this excerpt, I'd bet a chocolate truffle that the polite facade will crack. There will be scandal and gossip and yelling. There would almost have to be.

Why does this opening work? If conventional wisdom is to start in the middle of a scene, start with dialogue, with action, with conflict, then why does this work? I mean, look at it. It's omniscient. Romance conventions require us to always be in the viewpoint of an actual character, but there's no viewpoint character here. There's no scene. It's all summary -- exposition, to be precise, and we all know that it's bad to start with exposition, right?

This example proves why rules are less important than the rationale behind the rules. Your job as the writer is to engage the reader from page one, sentence one. The "rules" (start with action or dialogue, start with scene, etc.) are really nothing more than methods which will generally help you accomplish that task. You can break rules IF you still get the job done by some other method.

What happens in this excerpt is actually quite simple. The author is playing with reader expectations to some degree -- romance is supposed to be about happy endings, finding your one true love and marrying and living happily ever after -- but this is the opposite of what we expect romance to be about. Oppositions create tension, and tension drives the reader forward through the pages.

But it's not just that she created an opposition. It's that she set up a world where the reader's expectation -- happy marriage as the goal -- is turned upside down. Toyed with. Redefined. "Happy marriage" in the ordinary world of this story doesn't sound much like the happy marriage we would expect in a romance novel. And yet the world of the book insists that their version of happy (polite distance) is the correct version of happy, and the reader's expectation of happy (romantic love and commitment) belongs to "foolish young girls" and "debutantes fresh from the schoolroom."

What is the promise this book makes in its first 244 words? Nothing less than that it will redefine the entire ordinary world's definition of a happy marriage. That's enough to make me want to buy the book just so I can read beyond the excerpt over on the amazon page.

Keep this in mind the next time you're evaluating an opening scene. Instead of checking off whether it starts with action, starts with dialogue, and so on, ask yourself this: how is the author loading tension into the opening lines? Is the tension being driven by an active scene (the common method), or by some other method such as the one used by Sherry Thomas, playing with reader expectations?



Selah March said...

I think it also helps that the first line begs an instant question in the reader's mind:

Only one kind of marriage ever bore Society's stamp of approval.

Yeah? What kind of marriage is that?

I guess that's another way of saying the author has "loaded tension into the opening lines," but whatever you call it, it sucked me right in. It's nice to see that publishers/editors are open to something that breaks romance writing conventions right off the bat.

Thanks for the recommendation. I ordered the book. :)

Edittorrent said...

Hi Selah! Honestly, I wish we saw more manuscripts that break the rules and get away with it. ;)

Renee said...

This is great!

I can't wait for Thomas' book to come out. Someone I know has read the ARC and says it is fabulous.

I love your advice. I have been going over and over trying to figure out if I've started it in the right place. I believe I have written 5 beginnings. After following the blog, now I'm wondering once again.

Thank you for keeping me on my toes.