Sherwood Smith September 23rd, 2006
A couple of conversations in various places on the net over the past week have prompted me to continue Kate Elliottâ€™s discussion of openings. For purposes of discussion, here are some thoughts on what seems to work in todayâ€™s market. (My focus here is on novels.)
A hundred years ago, leisurely openings were de rigueur–especially when presented either in first person or by an omniscient narrator. It could, and did, take several pages just to meander over the time and setting.
Nowadays people want the story to get moving right away. There are three openings that I see a lot of in workshops that I think are tough to pull off. These are The Big Bang, On the Run, and The Book of Genesis.
â€œThe Big Bangâ€ is when the writer throws the big conflict of the entire book at the reader at once. Sometimes this opening is successful, but more often it seems that big stakes openings, especially battlefields and sacrifices and so forth, are tough because the reader has had no time to invest any interest in the characters. They donâ€™t know why the blood and guts are flying, they donâ€™t care about anybody, and so the effect is â€œtoo much too soon.â€
The same with â€œOn the Run.â€ This is the in medias res opening, wherein the action is already going on, and thus the reader not only has to pick up the story and characters, but has to assemble the clues to why and wherefore. This opening can be a real challenge, because itâ€™s not always obvious who the reader is supposed to remember–which signposts are background painting and which are clues. When the backstory is filled in while characters are running, it takes an especially deft hand to keep the reader interest just above the frustration level, because such an opening requires an especially steep learning curve. Also, there is the temptation–and I think this is almost always a tough one to get readers past–to open with a â€œteaserâ€ in medias res scene, then stop the action dead before the reader has a chance to gain any real interest–and loop in a long explanation of backstory. This looped-in datadump before anyone wants it has a deadly effect on pacing and interest-building. Again, it can be done, but it takes a very skilled pen to open with a bit of action among new names and faces, thrust the reader by force backward into years of history, and then restart again in the present.
Finally, we talked here before about â€œThe Book of Genesisâ€ opening in a discussion about Prologues. (And this one almost always is a prologue.) There have been too many books opening with the history of the Elder Gods, when everything was marvelous and good except for that one mean brother or sister who slinks around from the gitgo, does something nasty, gets tossed into the godly klink for a few hundred or thousand years–and then gets out, swearing vengeance and all manner of Evile. So the story is about who gets to whack him/her back into the slammer with their ring/sword/power of Destiny. This used to be a popular opening, but its very popularity is now making it a tough sell.
Traditional openings that are easier on writer and reader include Waking Up, Discovery, the Interview, the Conference, the Journey . This Journey is not the Quest, but a headlong action scene to get some small goal accomplished that lets us see setting, character, some motivation and need: letâ€™s say a big war is imminent, and in fact thatâ€™s the main conflict of the story. The Journey opening is the main characterâ€™s desperate run around her village packing to leave, where we meet everyone, and assemble clues about whatâ€™s coming as we follow her, before the bad guys even get on the scene and kick off the main action. By then, we should care about our heroine and her doughty friends.
Waking Up is an old cliche, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be used–if something happens. If the protagonist finds on waking that he is not where he went to sleep. Or if she wakes up and finds someone on the next pillow who wasn’t there before. Or he wakes up and discovers that when he sneezes, the opposite wall explodes. But waking up and then meandering through bath, dressing, breakfast, and a normal morning is as leisurely (and as deadly for attracting readers) as the old-fashioned openings, unless the writer has an extraordinarily stylish voice. (This especially goes for opening with Dreams of Portent before we’ve even met a character.)
â€œDiscoveryâ€œ is related to that last one. The character begins with a mundane action–briefly setting the scene and time–and then Discovers the Magic Tieclip. Or a secret power. Or overhears a conversation between a brace o’ bad guys.
â€œInterviewâ€ and â€œConferenceâ€ are not action scenes, they are Reaction openings, but they are great for getting data across. Interview is when two characters open by discussing whatever–again, it need not be the main conflict, but it has to be some kind of conflict. A small but urgent need is like a simple fishing pole and hook nipping in the small fish–it gets the action going faster than the Big Kahuna, which requires a complicated ship-load of data and explanation. So, for example, if the story is a big war, two minions are standing in the castle hallway trying to figure out who has to take the message in to the Evil King. They argue, and as they argue, we learn a lot about the world and the characters before the Evil King learns that the Heroâ€™s land is not going to pay their triple taxes this year, which requires him to send his Army of Darkness to lay waste to the world.
The â€œConferenceâ€ opening is pretty much the same as the â€œInterviewâ€ but includes many characters. This one can verge on being problematical, like the â€œOn the Runâ€–but if the camera begins with a couple of characters and then gradually widens to add others, as well as facts needed to kick off the story, it can be a successful opening. In fact, this opening was made famous by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice–we donâ€™t get a huge, leisurely ramble, but we begin with a Conference. This opening is astonishingly brisk: the question of whether or not the father will call on the new young man in town introduces the heroineâ€™s family with a small problem that seques beautifully into the main thrust of the book.