I sometimes wonder why we get so excited about holidays. For me holidays are not about lying in the sun or sun tans. It’s about reconnecting with family, getting away from the pressures of current day life, dining out, some healthy walking and … catching up on my reading. So on my recent holiday to the Canaries we ate well, walked miles and miles, and read a lot.
Really, I didn’t have much choice. My family banned me from reading emails, or using my phone or ipad for the duration of the holiday. Okay, I relapsed once to check flight times and download some KDP data to work on later. But generally I was tech-free for two whole weeks. How many of you can do that?
But technology isn’t the subject of this month’s blog. Instead I chose my holiday activity of reading. Stephen King once said that writers should read a lot to master their craft. As writers, we can appreciate the skills of other writers and learn from them. I know to progress my skills I need to read more fiction than I currently do. I do read a lot — but it’s usually technical material. So on my holiday this autumn I picked five authors to read from my sci-fi genre. I finished three of them and enjoyed them. The other two I started but soon put them down. It wasn’t that these two were particularly badly written. It’s just that I’m a fussy reader and it was taking too long to get into the story.
It struck me that if I am so fussy about what I read then so are many others. Obviously, to be a successful writer you need to capture the hearts and minds of your readers. But getting this done in the first line, first paragraph, or first page or the story is hard. And if you don’t achieve it by the first ten pages you’ve probably lost the reader.
In this respect, readers are very different from the audience in a cinema. Members of the audience are unlikely to walk-out in the first ten minutes of a movie. On the other hand, a reader in a book shop, or on Amazon, may only spend a minute or two reading a short sample of the text before choosing to buy or put down the book.
Of course, I’m not the first to stress the importance of the opening scene. There are many books on writing that say the same thing. And if you are looking to sell your story to an agent or publisher the chances are they will reject a book out of hand if they are not impressed within the first few pages. Clearly, how you open a story is important and there are some techniques you can use to capture interest.
One technique writers use is called in medias res. Here the hero/heroine is thrown into immediate danger to capture the interest of the reader. This technique is often used in action movies. For example, in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark the opening sequence in the Peruvian jungle puts Indiana into a host of death defying incidents as he first recovers and then loses the golden idol. But this technique does not necessarily always work, particularly when we don’t know the hero/heroine. Why should we feel immediate empathy for a character in potential danger when we have barely met them? Finding this empathy in the first few lines or paragraphs of a story therefore requires real writing skill and imagination.
Another technique is to raise a question in the mind of the reader about why a character is behaving in an odd way? For example, why is he standing naked on a bridge in the middle of the night? How did he get there? What is he planning to do? To find out the reader has to read on, and by the time the reader learns the answer the writer has posed another question to pique the reader’s curiosity.
A good opening line is one way of capturing the readers attention. Here are some well-known opening lines from some great writers:
Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
All children, except one, grow up.—James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan
One of the things writers are warned against is starting with the weather. It’s not that it doesn’t create a mood; it’s just that the technique is overused and cliched. But to prove that there are no rules in writing that can’t be broken, here are some exceptions:
It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.—Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
While opening lines are important, I don’t think writers should necessarily become obsessed with them. Otherwise there is a danger of writing paralysis setting in driven by trying to meet an impossible standard of perfection. If we can’t get past the first line how are we going to finish the draft?
The time to consider the opening line and hone those critical opening paragraphs is when the first draft of the story is complete and you start the editing process; not when you’re writing the first draft. You need to get the story up and running and in the first draft and for that purpose any opening line will do. The opening can be perfected when the story is complete.