Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Give Me An Opening!

Give me an Opening

When should a story open? Exactly when it needs to and not a moment sooner. I know this is about as informative as answered "How tall should a person’s legs be?" the answer being "As long as they need to be" being, of course, true but not particularly helpful when it comes to constructing a facsimile of a human being, like a statue or a piece of art.

And yet, unlike a statue or a piece of art, there are fewer certainties about starting a novel. There is no such thing as "the beginning should be three times the ending" or something like it. Instead of we have people attempting to give indications and hints or describing their method for starting. "Start in mid-action" works just fine, except in cases where you’re dealing with such a far future or so strangely magical society that you end up making the part after the introduction heavy with info dump. "Go where the problem starts" is likely to deal any of us in the broad category of "thinks too much" to writing a great deal of unnecessary stuff in the beginning, as we poke around for the proverbial root causes. Then there is less common advice "Start with what the novel is about" for instance works just great provided you don’t mind reading what sounds like an essay tacked in front of the story.

So, how do you start a story? Well, like with art – I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it – a good opening defines itself. I took the liberty of borrowing – with permission – some of the openings of my mentees, to illustrate what works and why.

From Kate Paulk, who writes in a variety of sub-genres:

Another convention, another con hotel. After a while, they blur together into an indistinguishable mass of faux-elegance and bizarrely costumed fans. I usually go in what you could call Olde Worlde Vampire - three piece suit, John Lennon glasses, cane with a pewter wolf-head topper. Take Gary Oldman in that appalling Dracula movie, and you have the basic idea, except I wear black and my hair is darker. And short.
No-one's ever given me a second look. It suits me that way: I don't need people trying to find out more about me.
Even the smell's the same as usual, the flat, rolled out smell of years of smoke, disinfectant and inadequate hygiene recycled endlessly through the hotel air conditioning. No, this one wasn't quite the same.
I frowned, tasting the air. The back of my neck prickled, hair rising as age-old instinct whispered to me of something wrong.

We start in the utterly familiar environment of a con. The costume makes us perk up going "I wonder." The fact the MC is reclusive deepens our suspicions. The fact he’s smelling the air, and getting things from it no human gets confirms our suspicions. And "Blood" tells us there is a problem. Since this is a fantasy mystery, it also starts the ball rolling on the main problem. Quickly, efficiently, with a minimum of fuss.
Then there is this:
Always before battle begins I am possessed by the need for solitude and prayer. It is a curious thing, for I have never fought as merely another knight. I first ruled men at the tender age of eighteen, when the old Ottoman Sultan Murad and his son Mehmed still thought I could be a Turk puppet.
Those who slander me say I care nothing for the fate of other men. They forget that those who rule by the Lord's grace are entrusted with the Earthly welfare of their subjects, and to some extent their souls. To take one's subjects into battle, however righteous the cause, ensures that they will sin. The burden of their souls falls upon me, their Prince.

You could be excused for thinking it’s an historical. It is, in a way. It is also fantasy, being the story of Dracula set in a parallel universe, where one thing is different – no, not the obvious. The opening is perfect for the book – and the character – but it might not signal "fantasy" early enough. On the other hand, given the difficult and innovative nature of the book, this might be impossible. On the other hand, opening before a battle, with a character conflicted by his roll keeps us reading more, and hopefully by the time the fantasy hits the reader will be too hooked to set the book aside. The battle she opens just before is where the histories diverge.

From Amanda Green:
Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try. The memory remains, forever imprinted on your soul. It colors your perceptions and expectations. It impacts everything you say and do. It doesn't matter if the memory is good or bad, full of life and love or pain and death. That memory remains until the day you die – if you're lucky.
If not, the memory haunts you for all eternity.
Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knew that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died had changed her life and her perception of the world forever.

Again we know exactly what we’re dealing with. Oh, technically it starts with what the problem of the story is – memories that can’t be forgotten. But the fact that we’re dealing with a police detective tells us this involves crime. And that last line cues in the fantasy element pretty well. It also challenges you to go on reading.

St. Petersburg, Russia
January 1913

Winter blanketed the city. Heavy clouds filled the sky and only the pale light from the street lamps broke the darkness which mimicked an early dusk. Falling snow danced in the wind, mocking him as he moved quickly as he dared down the street in the direction of Rastelli Square. A gust of bitterly cold wind cut through him, chilling him to the bone even as he slipped on a patch of ice. For a moment he felt his balance teeter, and he struggled to keep his feet. He quickly recovered and hunched deeper into his coat, reminding himself that, cold as it was, this was nothing compared to all those winters he'd survived in Siberia as he grew into manhood.
More importantly, the weather acted as his ally this day, keeping all but those who had to be off the streets. Fortunately, the threat of being caught in one of Russia's infamous blizzards kept the faint of heart safely at home, all but insuring he'd be able to make his way to Smolny Cathedral without curious eyes seeing. He might look like someone from ordinary peasant stock -- which was exactly what he happened to be - and, therefore, no one of any importance. But, as the last few years had proven, he was no ordinary peasant, no ordinary man. Because of that, it was imperative no one mark his passage. Too many tongues already spread lies against him, whispering them in the Tsar's ear in a desperate attempt to discredit him and drive him from the capital.

We know we’re in the mind of someone important, that there’s intrigue afoot and that it’s historical. Those of us who know Russian History might guess who this is. No hint of supernatural, but that again is difficult in historical fantasy without seeming very strange indeed. My rule is that it must appear in the first chapter and that the opening must be gripping enough before it appears. Amanda’s hints of palatial intrigue do draw us in. Of course, in this as in Kate’s Dracula, any reader picking it up will know it’s fantasy from extra-text hints, such as the cover and the imprint. And the opening convinces us the author knows her history.

Now from Robert Hampson:
The office walls were a cool, professional blue designed to send the message that this was an office of authority. The University logo dominated the wall behind the receptionists desk. The occupant of that desk did her best to ignore the man sitting in one of the visitor chairs. Her aura of professional detachment was marred by the furtive glances whenever she thought he wasn't looking.
Somewhere a battery-operated clock ticked loudly in the silence. From an adjacent office could be heard the clicking of keys on a computer.
Professor John Wissen sat waiting.
He has neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. None of that mattered anymore. Nevertheless, he sat.

Academic setting well rendered. We know there’s something strange about the character, because the receptionist keeps looking furtively at him. And time doesn’t matter to him anymore. Definitely supernatural (or supernatural sounding) in a scientific climate. A perfect and intriguing opening for a very unusual zombie story.

And this:

There's never a good time for hallucinations, but driving to work had to be the worst. It had to be an hallucination, after all, you would think that somebody would notice a man in armor on a black horse galloping down the 405. Ed thought to himself as he tried to watch traffic and horse at the same time. It was 8 AM and the San Diego Freeway was jammed. The horse and rider had appeared out of his blind spot on the right and were not only keeping pace with the slow-moving traffic, but pulling ahead of the constant stream of cars.
Still, no one seemed to react – there were no more red brake lights than usual, no cars swerving left to give them clearance. No horns, no shouts, no rude gestures. How unlike Los Angeles drivers.

This has to be one of the more gripping openings from the undeniably true first sentence on. You want to know what the heck that horse and rider is doing and why. Time travel? If so, why does no one else see it? Ghost? You keep reading out of sheer need to see what comes next.

Anyway – I hope illustrating the point eliminated it somewhat. As usual I am open to questions, comments and thrown change. [G]

Oh, for those of you dying of curiosity, I did a podcast of one of my old short stories. It is largely unedited/unfiltered, as I was testing hardware. I do have the software to optimize it, but it will have to wait until I can install it in the "grown up" computer downstairs, as it seems to outgun my little machine. And, yes, my accent REALLY sounds like that.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good Opening Examples.

I find the hard question is knowing when to thread the back story in. How much, how soon, how little? What does the reader have to understand, to grasp the implications and the character's motivations?

With my current series I'm working on the principle that I give as little as possible away, so the reader is trying to make sense of it. If they find the characters interesting they'll keep reading. I hope.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, thank you for the motivation!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena, part of the issue is that as a science fiction/mystery reader, I like discovering things slowly. However, I find often readers want more up front. Yeah, it's confusing.

However the characters, in my case, often don't know their own motivations till the climax. :)


Mike said...

Hum -- as a sometime mystery reader and fulltime SF&F reader, I think we actually want it both ways. We want the clues -- rich details, rules of the game, etc. -- up front where we can pore over them and try to figure out what's happening. But we want the revelation, the insight into how that dog not barking means the dogcatcher did it, late.

Somewhere recently I've seen the notion that the writer is providing the reader with a script for them to play all the parts in their mental playhouse, which I think might help. After all, the script has to be clear about who's onstage and what they are doing so that the reader can stage their play properly. But that doesn't mean you can't change the backdrop, introduce new scenery, and even shoot the gun when needed.