Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Beginning Your Book With a Bang

Okay, so I decided to publish it here, after all. The article I wrote last Wednesday got accepted by two newsletters and a website, and nobody wanted to retain rights, so I'm posting it here, as well.

Today I want to talk about beginnings. Opening lines. And since only I know what the meaning is behind my opening lines, I’m going to have to use the opening lines from my own books to explain.

When you’re writing a book, you want to draw the reader in immediately. You can’t take a whole bunch of pages to get to where your story really begins, because in doing so, you run the very real risk of losing your reader, or losing a sale. You know who I’m talking about. Those readers who stand in the book aisle and pick up books and start reading the first page, then either put the book in their cart or back on the shelf. I figure you have about 30 seconds tops to capture their attention, a page or two at most.

So your opening has to be a grabber. One that gets the reader wondering what is going on here immediately. In a mystery or suspense, we say, start with a body on the floor.

So here goes:

In Thin Ice, my original opening line was: If there was such a place as hockey player hell, Eric Cameron was in it.

Unfortunately, that was in the prologue, and the prologue got cut during edits. But the rest of the paragraph went on to explain how his team was losing, time was running out, and it was up to him to pull off a win. His reputation was on the line, his having been named Captain of the team earlier that day by the owner with a public challenge to turn the team around.

Unfortunately, the other team knew this and were gunning for him. He knew it, they knew it, and in short order, the fight was on.

Instead, I opened with: It was no way to spend a birthday, drinking alone in some hole in the wall dive, but it beat sitting at home alone, staring at the contents of his rented apartment.

Not quite as engaging, but it still draws you in. Why is this guy sitting alone in a bar on his birthday with no one to go home to? No home to go to, really, if the stuff in his apartment is rented.

Obviously he lost the game he was supposed to win, and was on everyone’s s*** list from the owner to his teammates to the fans.

Why? How did this come about? I’m hoping the reader will want to know and read on.

In Jake’s Return, the opening line is: Rebecca Reed would never forget the sound of Jacob Donovan walking back into her life.

Sort of sums the book up, doesn’t it? You have the heroine on the first page, reacting to---what’s the book about???—Jake’s return.

Return to where? Why did he walk away? Why did he come back? What happened between them? How will his return affect Rebecca?

I’m hoping the reader wants to know.

Next, Ashton’s Secret: It was a hell of a homecoming.

Okay, so that alone won’t do it. I could have done better. I’ll add the next line and see if that helps:

It was a hell of a homecoming. No sooner had he rented the slip at the Ashton Marina than people had gathered on the doc. People he’d known most of his life, people whose expressions ranged from surprise to wariness to outright hostility.

Now we know that somebody has just come home and it’s not going well. Why? Why did he leave? Why is it not going well? What happened to make the people of Ashton hate/mistrust/dislike this man so? And why would he come back if he knew they would feel that way?

Justice is a Lady: “What do you mean, the gun isn’t there?”

This is from my current WIP. Samantha Dallas is an assistant district attorney, on her way into the courtroom for a trial against a gang member, and she’s just found out, in the corridor outside the courtroom, that a key piece of evidence has gone missing from the evidence property room. Suddenly she’s looking at a case that’s going down the tubes.

First, the gun gets your attention. Then the fact that it is missing. Missing guns make everybody nervous. Where is this gun, who is missing it, why do they need it, and why are they so upset that it is gone? (as indicated by the italics on the word “mean.”)

I’m hoping the reader will want to find out.

Letters to Laura, written in epistolary format:

June 15, 2002
8:15 a.m.

Dear Laura,
In an hour and 45 minutes I will begin my 25th year in prison.

Okay, you know it is a letter, you know it is about a real person, you know someone is in prison and has been for 25 years, and you know they know and remember the exact moment they entered prison.

I’d want to find out who Laura was, who’s writing the letter, why this person has been in jail for 25 years, and how it could be that they would remember the exact date and time their life changed forever.

But that’s just me :).

Personally, my favorite way to open a book is with a line of dialogue. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in all cases. You have to go with what fits the story. A lot of people like to open up their stories with describing the scenery, or the weather. This only works if you use the setting or the weather as a character in your story. In Eileen Dreyer’s Sinners and Saints, the weather is as much a character in the story as the characters themselves.

The story is set in New Orleans as a hurricane looms on the horizon, and she describes its imminent arrival as if it were an ominous character coming to town. Here is the opening to chapter one:

Omens come in all sizes. Hair standing up at the back of the neck. Crows on a telephone wire. Shapes in a cloud or a chill in the wind.

In, say a story that takes place in a haunted house, or haunted village, or a different planet, you would want to set the scene right from the beginning.

But in a contemporary or even historical work of fiction, unless the weather or setting is to be used as a character element in the story, I’d highly recommend a snappy line of dialogue, a short one-liner that grabs the reader’s attention and implies something big is about to happen, or something philosophical (profound or whimsical, depending on the mood of the story) from the main character’s point of view. Here’s one I just made up:

If she’d known this was to be her last day in Jamaica, she might have chosen to call her mother before she disappeared.

Who is she? Why is she in Jamaica? Why does she disappear? How does she disappear? What will her mother think when she doesn’t hear from her daughter?

Try it. Just play around with opening lines. You never know. You might even come up with an idea for a book :).

1 comment:

jodi said...

...but...I like the opening of Thin Ice. I think it works better, because it's more "angsty" (uhm...okay that's just me, the queen of angst)

You have wonderful openings.