Thursday, May 26, 2011

Grand Openings

There are only a few days left to sign up for my Dialogue Basics workshop at the Savvy Authors site. Link in the sidebar. And if you read yesterday's post on basic html, there was an error, which I corrected, so if you read it early in the day, you should go back and note the changes. And don't forget, Tuesday's guest, Sarah Grimm, is giving away a book to a commenter. Scroll down and leave a comment under her post.

This past Sunday, I drove "all the way down the mountain" to Colorado Springs to hear literary agent Rachelle Gardner speak on openings. I'm going to hit some of the high points in this post.

Since I'm starting a new book, I'm facing that dilemma, and it doesn't get any easier. And, since Hubster read the first scene of my efforts and said, "I don't like the first line," I figured it couldn't hurt to have a 'refresher' course in what an opening should do.

Rachelle spoke as an agent, but we also discussed things from a reader's point of view. If you're submitting, that opening has to attract an agent's attention. If you're published, you're convincing the reader to buy your book, and not one of the other kazillion on the shelf.

She gave us some excellent reasons why openings are so hard to write. The first, that as the author, you've probably got an emotional attachment to your opening scene because you've envisioned it for days, weeks, months or years. But it might not be the best way into your story.

Or, you don't really now where they story begins.

Or, you don't have a true feel for the theme or premise until you've finished the book.

(For the record, the second one fits me best.)

An opening should start with some kind of conflict. There needs to be something that will intrigue the reader into wanting to know what comes next.

She warned against:

Using gimmicks, or trying to be clever in your first sentences.

Opening with the weather (we've heard that one)

Opening with a dream sequence, which will make the reader have to backtrack.

Opening with a line of dialogue. (We've often heard that this is a good way into the book, but if your reader doesn't know the characters, these are just words out of the blue).

Opening with some mundane action just so you can show what your character is thinking about. (Amounts to a back story dump)

And, sometimes a "bad" opening is simply "bad" because it's been done too many times. Her example from romance: Young heroine returns to her small town home for a funeral. She's likely inherited something she doesn't want, and will fall in love with her high school sweetheart. Yes, there's lots of room for conflict, but because Rachelle sees so many of these, if you're writing one, it's going to have to have a unique twist, and be superbly written.

Dumping back story is something I've talked about here, and in some of my guest blog posts—avoid that R.U.E. I compare back story to an IV drip rather than tube feeding. Or, the cocktail party analogy. How much do you tell someone you're meeting for the first time. So, I was pleased to hear Rachelle say writers should ask themselves if the reader needs to know this "right this minute."

And yes, it's hard. In just a few paragraphs, you have to introduce your protagonist, give him something to deal with, and make the reader care. There has to be tension and conflict, and often writers try too hard to set up the character to engage the reader. Or they go too far the other way and set up an exciting, action-packed sequence, but we don't know whose side we're supposed to be on, or why.

That first page needs to show some kind of action. It needs to be a page-turner. It has to be unique. There has to be tension and conflict. And there has to be something at stake for the character. He has to want something.

In short, the book should open at the point where things get interesting.

Another excellent reminder she gave was that scenes have to END at a rising point of tension. I know when I wrote my first book, I didn't even put in chapter breaks. I went back and did that when I finished, and they were almost all at the "resolution" point of the chapter. Yawn. Then, I found that if I simply backed up a few paragraphs, I had a much better ending point. And as I continue to write, I'm much more aware of this, and I've got lots of scenes in WIPs that have my note, "Needs a hook."

Which brings me to another important point. You don't have to have that perfect beginning right away. Don't sweat it. Write what you think works, then finish the book and go back and fix the beginning. By then, you'll have a much better idea of conflicts and themes.

At the end of the workshop, Rachelle read a few first pages submitted by attendees, and we discussed what worked, and what didn't, and why.

The protagonist has to be clearly the character with something at stake. There were a couple of examples where the author explained what was happening, or going to happen later in the book, but it didn't come through in the opening. If your reader is confused now, there's not likely to be any later.

As always, "rules" are "guidelines. She read one sample that opened with the weather and a funeral, and it clicked for her.

And now – here's my opening—the one Hubster didn't like. Any thoughts? Does it serve any of the functions of those opening lines?

"You'll do well to get rid of that chip on your shoulder before you report to Chief Laughlin."

Without removing his gaze from his lieutenant, Scott Whelan swiped the fingers of his left hand across both shoulders. "Yes, sir. Chip removed, sir. Is that all?"


Wynter said...

Great advice. Openings are definitely the hardest part of the book for me to write. Your opening line doesn't necessarily draw me in but if the rest of the page has something exciting, it could work.

Terry Odell said...

Wynter -- thanks. I've never been much of a 'first line' or even 'first paragraph' hook-writer. I always hope my readers will hang in there for the first page.

Hart Johnson said...

I'm often tempted to put too much scene setting into my opening... and it bugs me dialog is technically a no-no. I think you've done it here and I like it fine--I mean YEAH it jumps in in the middle a little, but isn't that what we are supposed to do?--you give a lot of info with just two lines, and I have started with it and think it can work. I normally love the beginning of books, but that first couple pages never are quite as zippy first draft as they need to be.

Terry Odell said...

Hart - I've gotten better; I used to get to about chapter 8 before I knew where my book started. Now I can write 3 chapters and revise from there. I'm sure I'll be tweaking the opening, but it's what I have to do to get rolling.

Anonymous said...

I usually get the first line first, and build everything off of that. My latest novel is an exception, I showed it to a fellow author and he suggested putting an action sequence in front, which I did. It fit perfectly with the original opening and gave the chapter a darker tinge. The book was about him getting out of that dark place so it worked beautifully.

Cat Moleski said...

I actually love trying to write a good first sentence. I usually re-write it after I've finished the first draft and then re-write it as many more times as I need until I find the sentence that I think works.

As for your first sentence, what bugged me was the cliche of 'chip-on-your-shoulder'. Although it was in a dialog and people do speak in cliches, it jarred me. Why settle for your speaker using cliches when you can create a character that uses original speech?

You first character is asking the second to adjust his bad attitude. There are lots of ways to talk about someone's bad attitude. Beginning with cliches: take yourself down a peg, pin your own ears back. Now thinking about making adjustments could lead you to: change that radio station, or tune in a new song, or recalibrate your head. In a police/dective story maybe you would come to: adjust your sights, or aim that gun at a different target.

It just seems like fun to me. Thanks for the post.

Terry Odell said...

authorguy - I admire you for knowing your first line so well.

Cat - thanks for the brainstorming. I normally don't obsess about my openings when I start writing; more often than not, they're going to change drastically, and I hate to waste too much time and brain power on something that might end up cut anyway.