Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Great Opener? Or Have You Slammed the Door?

 I have countless first chapters that are absolute messes--info dumps, character dumps, needless exposition--no mention of plot, By-the-way-Bob dialogue, etc. Gak. No wonder I"ve been asked over the years to flash back or rewrite the beginning. Great openers? Hell I've slammed the door on agents and editors, more times than I can say, "This author bores the hell out of me and I'm only on page three." It took me a long time to understand what was meant by a good opening sentence, paragraph, first page or chapter. But hell, they're all related because one segment-bit leads into another. 

For the longest time I thought that opening a first scene/pages with explosions, chase scenes, gunfire, a murder or other physical movement examples of mayhem and disorder, were the order of the day. I thought this is what agents and publishers meant by creating a hook. Not so. A hook, or more precisely for this article, a good beginning, comes in many forms and techniques. Reading a lot of openings in good books, books that have been praised for great pace and reader enthusiasm, will show you the broad strokes of compelling writing out of the gate. What have I learned?

An example of an interesting opening that contains no action:

"Tilly Breedlove never thought she would end up in an institution like this and hear her father utter such dreadful, embarrassing words across a counter top.

“I’m Reginald Breedlove, and I have an appointment for the last stage of the program. I’m here to pawn my daughter.”

Im here to pawn my daughter. Tilly knew they had another word for it, because she and her girlfriends used to laugh at the K-Span commercial spots on late night Holoview. She wasn’t laughing now. She’d never seen so many kids gathered in one spot, except at a school assembly.

The first floor of the auditorium-sized building had at least twenty standing lines and a waiting area filled to capacity. Sure, there were sniffles and tearful goodbyes, with an occasional knock-down-drag-out, but the worst scenes were reserved for the six to twelve-year-old kids, the next wing over. Those kids were on the Daffodil Plan, commonly called, Daffy’s, and their screams pierced through the air conditioning vents."
 A few people asked me via PM where that quote came from. It's from my own YA distopian, The Girl They Sold to the Moon. The first four submissions resulted in partials and full requests, or partials that led to fulls. The second submission won the first place grand prize in a novel contest, offering an advance and publication. I refused it and sent the book to my agent--she wants to try the big boys with it.

The beginning (a little further in) shows a very heart-wrenching scene, and portrays a girl totally out of her element--which is a non-action opener. I purposely left it kind of vague so the reader ends up with questions in their mind. If you leave the reader with questions in their mind or scratching their head over something, they're inclined to read on because it has that WTF factor. Question: How has society gotten so bad that the head of a household is legally sanctioned to pawn dependent household members? Question: What year is this--they mention Holograms? Question: Who are the Daffodils, and why are they screaming?

Challenge the reader to ponder (hard), to guess, to unravel, but don't give them enough to solve anything. Trip them up and lead them down a dirt road. If you can do that page after page, you've got them by the literary nads. And that's incredibly challenging. You don't need a gang fight, a murder, gunfire, chase scene, explosions, unbridled emotion, heated dialogue with lots of swear words, or an overly graphic sex scene.

On the other hand, don't try to get too purplely and literary in your first paragraphs. Try and avoid a scene that starts from a basic beginning--like someone waking up, showering, getting in the car and arriving at a point of interest. Place your character right at the point of interest in the first paragraph, and have him/her involved in the first hint of the plot, or conflict, or mystery etc. There is no need to stage or prep your characters and their actions. Go very light on any physical description in the beginning. Physical descriptions can bog you down, cut the pace to a snail's crawl.

Watch out for static openings, where you have characters sitting down for a meal, laying in bed, or discussing things over a drink at a bar. Not bad beginnings if you do them right, but they're incredibly boring if muffed. Involve the character right away, if you can, with some pivotal point or decision. You can even have your character witness something very, very strange and lead the reader on that way. Try to avoid describing the weather or a person's reflection in the mirror--these are cliche and overused. If you have one, make sure it is very relevant to the plot or general storyline. 

I've actually seen openers where the author describes the environment with such detail and beauty, I wanted to know where this place was. He hooked me with a sense of wonder and awe at what his MC was looking at.

I differentiate between a hook and good beginning, in that I think a good hook is more concept oriented. Great beginnings = page turning. Pull the reader a little bit at a time--set one paragraph or scene up for the next. How can you tell if you have a weak beginning? If your partials or first sample pages are getting hosed, you've failed to reel in the reader. And it's uber important if those readers or agents and editors.

Happy trails. Happy beginning trails, that is.

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Yes, the obligatory plug. You saw it coming didn't you?
Journey Interrupted, from the Planet Janitor series, has just arrived on Kindle and can be had for $.99. This prequel short is 32 pages long and contains artwork crafted by the talented Toni Zhang. Get ready for some tragedy this time; all is not well in the conclusion.

(BTW, now I know what it's like to write one of the Star Trek episodes—it ain't easy)


 Planet Janitor: Journey Interrupted (Engage Science Fiction) (Digital Short) (Planet Janitor: Digital Short)
 The crew of Planet Janitor Corporation are on the tail end of a salvage mission in the asteroid belt when they encounter a ghost ship. Faced with a volatile substance onboard, the crew race against the clock to commandeer the vessel before it reaches the Exon Refueling Station. What they find on the ship will stress their abilities to the limit, and put their lives in imminent danger.