I am about to give you the single best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard:
Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop.
It comes from the King of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.” But it is one of my favorite writing mantras. And I really believe that within the quote’s Zen simplicity are three huge lessons about how to write a good book:
- Pick the exact right moment in time to start telling your story. Too soon and you end up with pages of throat-clearing. Too late and you might miss the story’s moment of catalytic power. You have to time your entry into your story just right or, like those astronauts in Apollo 13, you’ll skip off the atmosphere and bounce into nothingness.
- Persevere through the second act. Making it through what I call “the muddy middle” is the hardest part of writing a solid book. You have to use all the tricks of the trade to keep the story moving forward and maintain suspense.
- Earn your climax (ahem) and know when it’s time to leave. Deliver a resolution that is logical, fair and emotionally satisfying. But resist the temptation to tie everything up too neatly.
But let’s go back to beginnings. What makes a great opening for a book?
It’s pretty subjective, and there’s lots of good advice out there. Click here
to go to our archives and read Elaine Viet’s take on it. We writers all have our favorite opening lines, which all seem to circle back to “Call me Ishmael.” (Click here
to read famous authors talking about their favorite opening lines.)
I especially like Stephen King’s favorite:
“This is what happened.”
It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s out of print novel, Shoot. King likes it because, “It is as flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.”
King says he struggles with all his opening lines, sometimes for years. I guess that should make us mere mortals feel better as we stare at that blank screen and sweat blood trying to get the right mix of words to snag the reader’s attention. Back to Stephen King:
“[A good opening] is not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”
King is talking about opening lines in context of his new book, Doctor Sleep. (Click here for the whole article). Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, picking up with now adult Danny. Here is the opening King came up with:
“On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.”
As King himself says, it’s pretty workmanlike, neither grand nor elegant. But look what it does: It immediately sets the reader in time and place and creates a bridge between the past book and the new one. I think this is a great lesson for all us writers — you don’t always need dazzling wordplay or a dead body in your opening. Sometimes you just need a solidly build doorway the reader can step through.
I mean, don’t you get a little tired sometimes reading the tortured openings some writers give us? Crime novelists might be the worst offenders because we are led to believe that we have to shock and awe in the opening graph or the story is DOA. As a reader, I hunger for books lately that open in a lower gear. As a writer, I am trying hard to follow the lead of King (and the King of Hearts) and just begin at the beginning.
I am not happy with the opening chapter of my WIP. I think I am trying too hard. So recently, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out few of my favorite books to see how others handled things. Here are four opening lines that I found:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The four books? Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White; Hamlet by Shakespeare; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Great openings, all for different reasons. White gives us suspense worthy of Dean Kootz in a children’s book! Shakespeare gives us foreboding and the existential call to self identify. Eugenides sums up his gender theme but makes us wonder: Haven’t we all been born twice? And Plath leads us right to her heroine’s “electric nerves” and lost soul.
Can I offer one last favorite of mine? It’s on almost everyone’s list of great openings but so what?
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
But I love the next few lines even more:
“My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Yes, it is about Humbert’s obsession with his nymphet . But it is also about Nabokov’s obsession with words. Lo. Lee. Ta…a narcotic chant and a prose poem. I’ll never forget the first moment I read that paragraph. I was sixteen, standing in the public library during a sweltering Detroit summer. I’m sure I didn’t really understand the story. What I understood was the magic of those words. True confessions: A couple years ago, I actually tried to riff on Nabokov’s Lo-Lee-Ta in a mystery I was writing. The character was describing Florida (Flor-ee-dah!) and well…you can imagine how bad it was. Thank God my editor told me to rewrite it.
Okay, one last Nabokov sample and then I’ll shut up. It is the SECOND paragraph in Lolita:
“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
The first paragraph of Lolita
made me want to be a writer. That second paragraph, when I read it today, makes me want to be a better writer.
We’re back. I can’t resist this coda. Because as I was getting ready to hit the button to post this, I found out that the 2013 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced. This contest, begun in 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, honors opening sentences in novels. It is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1830, wrote these now famous lines:
“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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
Yes, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest recognizes the worst
possible opening lines for novels in all genres. (Here’s the link
if you want to read them all, God help you.). For all us crime dogs out there, I’ll give you the winner in crime fiction:
“It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.”
Here’s the winner in my favorite category, Vile Puns:
“What the Highway Department’s chief IT guy for the new computerized roadway hated most was listening to the ‘smart’ components complain about being mixed with asphalt instead of silicon and made into speed bumps instead of graceful vases, like the one today from chip J176: “I coulda had glass; I coulda been a container; I coulda been some bottle, instead of a bump, which is what I am.”
And here is this year’s grand prize winner:
She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.
I think I actually saw that last one on Amazon the other day. If you hurry, you can get it for 99 cents.