Friday, April 25, 2008
In the beginning
I like reading and commenting on stories or excerpts submitted for critiques on the Absolute Write forums, but there are many such works-in-progress. So I read the first few paragraphs of each to see which ones look more interesting. That's the same thing agents and editors will do (though they may not have the time to read paragraphs and might just look at the first few lines instead), so it's important to make sure the start is as gripping as possible. I've seen a few things at the beginnings of stories and novels that might discourage readers from continuing.
1. A character is bored.
Jessica looked out of the window at the rain, then closed the curtains. She had nothing particular to do that evening, so she turned on the TV. Reruns again. She wished she didn’t feel so bored.
The only reason I can see why writers might use this start is as a contrast, so that when Trouble enters the protagonist’s life, Trouble looks even bigger and more interesting in comparison. I don’t like to use absolutes, so it’s possible that some writer could take this kind of opening and make it work, though I’ve never read anything like it in a published novel. But there are two reasons why I’d leave Jessica to her boredom and try another story instead.
The first is that readers, in general, feel what the character feels. If the protagonist feels afraid, and there’s a good reason for him to be afraid, the reader will feel afraid too. Likewise, if the protagonist is bored, the reader will be bored as well – and most readers won’t persist past the boredom, hoping the story will be more interesting if they read far enough. Agents and editors are even less likely to slog past such an opening.
The second reason is what it implies about the protagonist’s personality. What I know of Jessica after reading that paragraph is that she’s bored and has nothing to do. Not very compelling. No conflict, no interesting details about her job or her problems or even her appearance. I like to see characters in motion, people with places to go and things to do, women in danger, men in deep trouble, children with problems to solve. I’ll read a story that gives me those, not one where the main character seems bored.
2. A weather report.
The storm cracked above the city. Even before the thunder could roll out, the first drops fell, and soon blankets of rain blotted everything from view. Lightning flickered against the masses of grey clouds.
Is anything happening yet? Well, there’s a lot of meterological pyrotechnics, but if the writer’s lucky, the flashes and bangs will cover the fact that there is no character or conflict at the start. If the writer’s not lucky, of course, readers will move on to something else, something that hooks them from the start. Starting with storms or fog or so on sets the scene – but it’s usually safer to set the scene after the reader’s hooked, and to do it gradually rather than beginning with the weather report.
There are ways to start with weather and still intrigue the reader, though, and one of them is to imply that something’s not quite right in the world. One of the best-known examples of this is the opening line of George Orwell’s 1984.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Dean Koontz does something along these lines in The Servants of Twilight.
It happened in sunlight, not on a dark and stormy night.
Something bad happened in the sunlight, and it was the kind of thing that you’d expect would happen on a night with terrible weather instead. I’m reading on to see what this thing was.
Another way is to open with a great image; a good example of this is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Opening with disastrous weather, such as a tornado swooping down on a village or on a car speeding up to get to safety, might also work.
3. Descriptions of the setting, unless there’s something unusual about the setting
Jessica’s bedroom was decorated in pale green and white, with lace curtains at the windows and a rug with roses on it. It was a pretty, feminine place and she loved spending time there.
Jessica’s bedroom was in the Twisted Tower, and the servants removed the bars from the windows before they carried her belongings in.
Which one sounds more interesting to read? The second, since it's not only strange but there's action in it, rather than passive description. The only bad thing about the second example is that now I want to complete the story. :)