Thursday, May 24, 2012

Openings

A conversation arose on a message board today about the opening of a book. Someone was fretting about his opening, and rightfully so. It is a crucial part. I assume everyone knows it has to grab the reader, yadda, yadda, yadda...

What I find problematic in the pieces that I critique is that most people don't really know how to put together a good beginning. It's popular now to start with a chase scene, a murder, a battle, or something along those lines, and that's not what I mean when I say the beginning has to grab the reader. There are countless ways to do that. In The Hobbit, Tolkien starts by telling the reader what a hobbit is. That's not action, but it is interesting, because he's describing something otherworldly. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy opens by describing the true feelings of an adulterer. No action, but the reader is mesmerized because it's a view into a man's soul. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen starts by making an observation on mankind which happens to frame the plot.

Trust me, it doesn't have to be fast paced, it doesn't have to be violent. It simply has to be interesting. That said, it is far easier to come up with an opening that grips the reader if you do include one of those things. Murder mysteries have an inherent advantage of having a default starting point, the crime to be solved. The rest of us have to figure something else out.

Most of the beginnings I crit that start with the fast pace or violence feel forced. The author hasn't built up any natural tension, so the reader must be told of how nervous the character being chased is, or perhaps the reader is given the medical report, you know, "her heart beat furiously in her chest, so furiously, she thought it it would burst through the ribcage and dance on the pavement". Shit. Don't get impatient. Tell the reader something cool, something funny, something profound. If you have to resort to the chase or the violence, make it evolve naturally.

2 comments:

  1. You make a good point, Fred. I think the fear is that when readers- editors etc only give you a few paragraphs to make them keep going, you have to have an opening that sings and dances. Nowadays with ereaders I suspect a lot more people just don't bother reading on if they don't like the first page or so. paperback, I'd be a little more inclined to keep going for a while.

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  2. I hate writing novel openings for just this reason. There's way too much room for doubt. Is there enough interesting stuff here to entice a reader forward or do I need to set someone on fire?

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