Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Openings... A Can of Worms?

Now if we all agree hooking the reader is important, how do you do it?

A lot of writing instructors will suggest that you start the story in the middle of THE ACTION. You know, "Twang! The arrow barely missed her head," and such like. That method can be effective, and it's a good thing to try particularly if you feel like your story lacks a certain amount of movement or if you've been having trouble with your pacing.

Not every story needs to start with a literal bang, however.

In science fiction and fantasy, you can also start with an eyeball kick, as William Gibson did in his famous opening for Neuromancer: "The sky was the color of a television set tuned to a dead

Juxtapositions work well too. I'm not sure I can find the exact opening, but Mike Resnick's "Scherzo with Tyrannosaurus" would be a good example of how putting to disparate elements together can grab a reader's attention. Turns out it was downstairs. Here's how it goes: "A keyboardist was playing a selection of Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas, brief pieces one to three minutes long, very complex and refined, while the Hadrosaurus herd streamed by the window."

From the same collection, this alternative from "Mount Olympus" by Ben Bova, "Tomas Rodriguez looked happy as a puppy with an old sock to chew on as he and Fuchida got into their hard suits." What I like about Bova's is that nothing is really happening. It's the turn of phrase that sounds very American South coupled with a term I'm not sure of "hard suits" (space suits? something else?) that catches and holds my attention.

Let's see if there's anything else fun in here (BTW, I'm perusing the SEVENTEENTH ANNUAL YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Gardner Dozois). Okay, here's the beginning of Paul J. McAuley's, "How We Lost the Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen"--"You probably think you know everything about it." A provocative accusation in second-person (you) which jumps out and bites you, personally. This works for me, especially given the title of the story. Something like that could work for you, too, perhaps.

One thing that writing instructors will also tell you, but which I've actually found fairly useful, is that sometimes it's best to leave the beginning to the end. Which is to say, start the story wherever you need to in order to write it all the way to the end, and then, once all is said and typed, go back and revamp your hook so that it's catchier. Also, depending on how you write, you may not know what a story is about until it's over, and really, the beginning paragraph of a short story (or first chapter of the novel) should lay out the main conflict of the main character. It needs to answer the question: What’s at stake here? Who stands to lose the most?

Or not... what do you think?


Anonymous said...

the beginning paragraph of a short story (or first chapter of the novel) should lay out the main conflict of the main character. It needs to answer the question: What’s at stake here? Who stands to lose the most?

My biggest worry has always been my prologues - all four of the Harlan Vampire stories have both prologues and epilogues. Without the prologue for the first, Midnight, though, a reader wouldn't know much about the main character and how she came to be how (psychologically) she is although not necessarily where she is (that comes later).

The first chapter of Midnight starts out: Life sucked. Cold rain poured on this gods-forsaken town lost in the hinterlands of the mountains. Thing was, Samantha detested the small town, but it did beat living on the street, her only other option...But I worry whether that's enough even though the people who've read the entire book have liked it a lot!

On the other hand, the crux of the second story doesn't present itself until the fourth or fifth page of the first full chapter, not until the reader slams into Michael saying, "I'm stepping down," etc, etc.

Sometimes I feel like I'm wondering around lost in this whole thing. LOL

Douglas Hulick said...

I think you are taking the phrase "in the middle of the action" too literally, Tate. The way I read it, it means that the reader enters while *something* is in progress. Yes, this can be action, but it can also be reflection, or even describing a sunset. The key thing is that the reader enters as something is going on, whether it involves a character directly or not.

Looked at in this light, several of the examples you cite do, in fact, happen in the middle of AN action - hydrosaurs running & a harpsichord being played, getting into hard suits, etc. Not all are as dynamic as dodging and arrow, but all happen in the middle of some sort of action or event. That is how I've always read the intent of in medias res = the reader enters when things (and the story) is already in motion.

That's not the say that juxtaposition, playing with expectations, or even just a wonderful turn of phrase aren't vital or valid starts, either; but they can be part of the whole in medias thing, and vice versa.

I'm also going to take issue with your assertion that the main conflict has to be present in the first chapter of a book*. I would agree that you need a conflict (or at least, a cost or threat) to be presented, but it can turn out to be a sub-plot, or even a prologue/lead-in to the main conflict, too. Sometimes the pacing or storyline requires that a conflict develop over time, rather than come right out of the gate. Or sometimes, it just works better that way. It may be harder to do, of course, but that doesn't make it any better or worse than starting at a gallop.

* = I will agree that you need to present the conflict as quickly as possible for a short story, given the limited space to work within.

Anonymous said...

I think you'll find that Michael Swanwick wrote the story you've credited me.

-- Mike Resnick

Anonymous said...

Eyeball kicks, as long as they're suitably interesting, work nicely for openings.

I like the accusatory style, too, saying something that prods a button. From the sorts of things McAuley writes, I can see why he would use it. :D

I bet the accusatory style would even better if you had to /react/ to it rather than /defend/, but I'm not exactly sure what I mean. :D

Openings that show the mood of the story from the start work nice for me, too, like the one from Fool Moon that hooked me on the Dresden Files:

"I never used to keep track of the phases of the moon. That's why I didn't realise it was one night shy of being full when..."

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the pacing or storyline requires that a conflict develop over time, rather than come right out of the gate. Or sometimes, it just works better that way.

That makes me feel a little better. ;)

Anonymous said...

I just ran across this opening, from your man Theodore Sturgeon, "A Sacuer of Loneliness":

"If she's dead, I thought, I'll never find her in this white flood of moonlight on the white sea, with the surf seething in and over the pale, pale sand like a great shampoo. Almost always, suicides who stab themselves or shoot themselves in the heart carefully bare their chests; the same strange impulse generally makes the sea-suicide go naked."

Phew. Eyeball kick, action, intrigue, drama...


Anonymous said...

"Middle of the action" does have to mean THE action, but AN action. I feel the point is to make the reader curious, either about what exactly a turn of phrase means, why the character is feeling that way... what the importance of what is happening is. Me, I can be sucked by beautiful language alone.

Kelly Swails said...

First off: Dudes! Mike Resnik reads your blog!!!

Okay, now that that's outta the way ...

I personally am always a sucker for the lines like "You probably think you know all about it," because, damn if I don't want to keep reading to find out what it is I know all about and why the heck I'm wrong. I'm a sucker for first person, too.

I agree with what already been said about starting in the middle of action: action doesn't always mean "oh crap the bad guys are after me right this very second" but "oh, look, something's going on... we don't know what yet, but it's happening ... oh, then let's see where this takes us..." etc.