The Opening as Part of the Closing … of the Deal

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It’s no secret we live in the age of the declining attention span.

How ’bout those Dodgers?

Where was I? Oh yes, attention spans. Declining.

We all know the causes. Phones, tablets, the infinite galaxy known as the internet, 24/7 social media, apps, games, noise, news, and the dopamine effect that comes from escaping reality in the blink of an eye or the texting of the thumbs. These multiform avenues of distraction come in small bites, too, like a bottomless bowl of Skittles. You’ve all been there. You’re chewing a red, it’s not even down the hatch yet, and you’re already reaching for the next one, or a handful of next ones.

Impatience has replaced contemplation. Annoyance erupts the moment the old lady in front of you in the grocery store line mutters, “Let me see, I think I have change in here somewhere.”

We’ve done a number of first page critiques here at TKZ, because everyone knows how important it is. Because of decreasing attention spans and the “need for speed” in everything we do, those first pages are crucial because they are one of the biggest influences on a browser’s buying decision.

I recall hearing about a study years ago of bookstore browsing habits. The typical sequence: a cover captured attention; the browser picks it up and reads the dust-jacket copy, sees who the author is, then opens to the first page. If it captivates them they are within striking distance of a buying decision.

It’s the same today online. A reader on Amazon is shown other thumbnail book covers that an algorithm has determined they might be interested in. A cover attracts, you click on it, get taken to the sales page where you can look at the description (cover copy). The page offers you a “Look inside” peek. You can also download a sample.

And there we are again, at the opening pages.

For years I’ve taught that the opening page and, indeed, the opening paragraph (and even further, if you can do it, the opening line) should be about a disturbance to that character’s ordinary world. Why? Because the reader doesn’t know who the character is yet. So what’s the quickest way to get them interested? Trouble.

We all respond to someone else in trouble. Even a total stranger. It’s our human condition. And most readers are still human.

Now, every so often I’ll read a blog post that takes umbrage (when was the last time you had a good old dose of umbrage?) at the idea of having to “open with a bang” or “some kind of action.” They’ll usually start off with some form of restatement of the sentiment There are no rules! And then go on to describe that this is their story, and they will open it up they way they see fit (which always strikes me as a bit odd, because they are not the ones plunking down the money for the story, so isn’t it also a story for the readers? Just asking.)

What I would say in answer is simply this: do you want people to buy your books or not?

Okay, then let me suggest you alter your opening page so there is something disturbing happening from the jump. After the reader buys your book you can entrance them with your style all you like. But if you don’t engage their attention-challenged sensibilities immediately, you may not get the chance.

Have a look at this opening:

The day was sunny and breezy, if cool––the first semi-decent weather after a long, hard, bitter winter––and Kate didn’t actually mind an excuse to get out in the world. She wouldn’t take the cat, though; she would walk.

She stepped out the front door, shutting it extra hard behind her because it irked her that Bunny was sleeping so late. The ground cover along the front walk had a twiggy, littered look, and she made a mental note to spruce it up after she finished with the hellebores.

Swinging the lunch bag by its twist-tied neck, she passed the Mintzes’ house and the Gordons’ house––stately brick center-hall Colonials like the Battistas’ own, although better maintained––and turned the corner. Mrs. Gordon was kneeling among her azalea bushes, spreading mulch around their roots.

If I were doing the critique here at TKZ, I’d start off by quoting one agent who was asked what she disliked in an opening. “Slow writing with a lot of description will put me off very quickly,” she said. Most readers would agree.

The above clip is actually a slight adaptation of a section from Chapter 1 of Anne Tyler’s novel Vinegar Girl. But it’s a later section, not the actual opening. This is the first page:

Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen. She straightened up and listened. Her sister was in the house, although she might not be awake yet. But then there was another ring, and two more after that, and when she finally heard her sister’s voice it was only the announcement on the answering machine. “Hi-yee! It’s us? We’re not home, looks like? So leave a––”

By that time Kate was striding toward the back steps, tossing her hair off her shoulders with an exasperated “Tcch!” She wiped her hands on her jeans and yanked the screen door open. “Kate,” her father was saying, “pick up.”

She lifted the receiver. “What,” she said.

“I forgot my lunch.”

Which leads to a short, disturbing conversation and then Kate’s reflection on why it’s disturbing. The other part, walking in the neighborhood, doesn’t come until after. (Note that a disturbance doesn’t have to be “big” like a car chase, ghost, or awakening in a hospital room. Just something that causes at least a ripple of portent in the character’s life.)

My point is that for any genre (including literary), beginning with a disturbance is actually part of a well-rounded marketing strategy––because it helps to close the deal by incentivizing a purchase.

This is not a compromise of your artistic vision! You have a whole novel for your artistic vision.

But if you want the readers to experience it, they have to want to buy the book. Don’t give them a reason to pass.

What about you? Do you read the “Look inside” sample on Amazon before you buy? Are you less patient with books these days?

How about less patient in general?

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The Exception That Proves the Rule About Opening With a Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Writers and other artists are a touchy lot. We love our independence. We should all go around humming that song from Woody Allen’s Bananas, the one the guerilla leader sings:

Rebels are we!
Born to be free!
Just like the fish in the sea!

In short, we don’t like to hear the word rules. Don’t fence me in! Give me land, lots of land! Rules? We don’t need no stinking rules!

And yet, and yet … there are some things that are fundamental to storytelling and the fiction craft, so called because, guess what, THEY WORK! They help a writer weave a story that readers can actually relate to and get lost in. Imagine that!

Yeah, but So-and-so breaks the rules and writes bestsellers!

Sure, and how many So-and-sos are there? And maybe, just maybe, So-and-so compensates for the “rule breaking” by doing something absolutely astonishing somewhere else. Maybe So-and-so knows exactly what he’s doing when he breaks a rule.

In fact, I’d say good old So-and-so is actually the exception that proves the rule!

Let me show you what I mean.

I have a rule—or, if your hackles are starting to gather for a protest––a guideline or axiom: Act first, explain later. By this I mean it is much more engaging and compelling to begin your book with an actual scene in progress, with a character in motion, than it is to lard backstory and description and exposition all over the first couple of pages.

Is there an exception to this rule? Yes, one that proves it. The exception is this: a style that can enrapture you with the power of the writing alone. Almost always this is found in so-called literary fiction.

Example: here is the opening of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. (Note: The ellipses are Kesey’s):

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River …

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting … forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce––and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir––the actual river falls five hundred feet … and look: opens out upon the fields.

Metallic and first, seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to the lips. Closer still, it flattens into a river, flat as a street, cement-gray with a texture of rain. Flat as a rain-textured street even during flood season because of a channel so deep and a bed so smooth: no shallows to set up buckwater rapids, no rocks to rile the surface … nothing to indicate movement except the swirling clots of yellow foam skimming seaward with the wind, and the thrusting groves of flooded bam, bend taut and trembling by the pull of silent, dark momentum.

A river smooth and seeming calm, hiding the cruel file-edge of its current beneath a smooth and calm-seeming surface.

Kesey reaches out with his wrestler’s arms and lifts you off the mat. It works for me. It may not for others, but that’s the point. Kesey knows exactly what he’s doing here, eschewing act first, explain later. The exception that proves the rule is a dazzling literary style.

What happens when a writer doesn’t dazzle, but ignores the rule anyway? You end up with something like this:

The trip by jeep from the small village near Luena to Malanje in Angola, in southwest Africa, followed by a train ride to Luanda, the capital, had taken seven hours. The drive from Luena was long and arduous due to unexploded land mines in the area, which required extreme diligence and caution to avoid as they drove. After forty years of conflict and civil war, the country was still ravaged and in desperate need of all the help outside sources could provide, which was why Ginny Carter had been there, sent by SOS Human Rights. SOS/ HR was a private foundation based in New York that sent human rights workers around the globe. Her assignments were usually two or three months long in any given location, occasionally longer. She was sent in as part of a support team, to address whatever human rights issues were being violated or in question, typically to assist women and children, or even to address the most pressing physical needs in a trouble spot somewhere, like lack of food, water, medicine, or shelter. She frequently got involved in legal issues, visiting women in prisons, interfacing with attorneys, and trying to get the women fair trials. SOS took good care of their workers and was a responsible organization, but the work was dangerous at times. She had taken an in-depth training course before they sent her into the field initially, and had been taught about everything from digging ditches and purifying water, to extensive first aid, but nothing had prepared her for what she had seen since. She had learned a great deal about man’s cruelty to man and the plight of people in undeveloped countries and emerging nations since she’d started working for SOS/HR.

So help me, that is the first page and a half of a published novel. If it had not been written by an A-lister who could sell her parking tickets, no agent or editor would have let this through. (For the identity of the author and feedback about this passage, go here.)

I will note there are superb writers in familiar genres who sometimes begin with a literary style. Michael Connelly comes to mind (e.g., the opening of The Narrows). 

The point, gentle writer, is that no matter what you call them––rules, guidelines, fundamentals, axioms––they survive because they work every single time. That’s what I said. There is never a time when act first, explain later doesn’t work as an opening move.

But if you want to try something different, go for it. I’m all for spreading your writing wings. Just be aware of what you’re doing and why. Because if it doesn’t work out, guess what? You can always go back to the rules!

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Finding the Right Door
to Enter Your Story

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“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

By PJ Parrish

I had a whole ‘nother blog in the works today but Clare’s post yesterday on common amateur mistakes made me want to switch gears. That, and the fact that I was hearing voices in my head the other day and this is a good way to exorcise them.

A while back, I gave a talk to a beginning writers group about what makes for a great opening in a novel. We had a good time analyzing which of their openings had promise or why they had veered off track. It’s a popular topic, as we at TKZ here so well know, but I think it’s one that we all need to revisit constantly. Me included.

See, the other day, as I was pounding around the jogging oval at the park, I heard a strange voice whispering in my head. I had never heard her before, but she was insistent: “Tell my story! Tell my story!” I tried to ignore her, because as Kelly and I await the Sept. 9 launch of our new book SHE’S NOT THERE, we are 16 chapters into a new Louis Kincaid. And one of the commandments of novel writing is Thou Shall Finish One Book Before Starting a New One. But this woman wouldn’t shut up, so I went home and banged out 2,000 words. Wow! I never get out of the gate that fast! I was chuffed.

Well, I re-read it yesterday. Wee-doggies, it stinks. I open with a woman sitting alone in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking about her life and what brought her to this point. She is sad. She is regretful. She is boring as hell. I also larded in pages of description of the saw grass, the weather, the clouds, the water, even the type of fishing lure she was using. Finally, toward the 2,000-word mark, I reveal she is a Miami homicide detective who turned in her badge when her husband and child were killed in a drug deal gone bad that she was involved in.

This morning, I deleted the chapter. Lesson number 1: Just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you should act on it. Lesson number 2: Even experienced writers have trouble with openings.

Even Stephen King. You think you sweat bullets over openings? He says he spends months and even years before he finds his footing. I read this recently in an interview King gave to The Atlantic magazine. He talks at length about what makes for a great opening, and how hard it is for him to find the right one.

When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.

And he makes a great point, that the right opening line is as important to the writer as it is to the reader:

You can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s 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.

Which is why I deep-sixed my woman in the fishing boat. Maybe her story does need to be told, but I entered via the wrong door. I’m going to set her aside for a while. In the meantime, I am going back to school. Want to come along?

HOOKS

Enthuse or lose! What was the prime crime of my bad chapter? NOTHING HAPPENED! The first chapter is where your reader makes decision to enter your world. Your hook needn’t be too fast or fancy. It can even be quiet — like someone going on a fishing or hunting trip (see example below!).  But it must be suspenseful enough to makes us care about your character. Fancy hooks can be disappointing if what follows doesn’t measure up. If you begin at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Also, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might just make the reader mad.

What about opening with action scenes? I’ve seen it work well; I’ve seen it look silly. I think intense action scenes work only if they have context and reason for happening. Car chase, bullets fly, things explode, dead bodies! But unless you give reader reason to care about someone, it feels cheap and pushy, like a Roger Moore James Bond movie. If you can make us CARE about the person during intense opening action scene, yes. If not, it’s boring and trite.

OPENING LINES

A good one gives you intellectual line of credit from the reader: “Wow, that line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. One of my fave’s is from Hemingway’s story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:  “It was lunch now and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. But if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up.  Stephen King has two favorite opening lines. One is from James M. Cain’s great novel The Postman Always Rings Twice:  “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”  Here’s King on why he loves it:

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious. This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do.”

GET INTO STORY AS LATE AS POSSIBLE

This is one of my pet peeves about bad writing…throat clearing. Begin your story just moments before the interesting stuff is about to happen. You want to create tension as early as possible in your story and escalate from there. Don’t give the reader too much time to think about whether they want to go along on your ride. Get them buckled in and get them moving. Preferably not in bass boat.

INTRODUCE THE PROTAGONIST

Another pet peeve of mine. Don’t wait too late in the story to introduce your hero. Don’t give the early spotlight to a minor character because whoever is at the helm in chapter one is who the reader will automatically want to follow. I call these folks “spear carriers” after the guys who stand in the background holding the spears in “Aida.”  They aren’t allowed to steal the spotlight when Radamès is belting out Celeste Aida. So don’t let your secondary characters get undue attention or the reader will feel betrayed and annoyed when you shift the spotlight.

IDENTIFY THE CONFLICT OR QUEST

Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside. Don’t put a woman in a fishing boat in the Everglades thinking about how crappy her life is and expect the reader to care.

WHAT IS AT STAKE HERE?

What is at play in the story? What are the costs? What can be gained, what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die? Can someone be saved? The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in neon but we do need a hint. And we don’t care that her fishing lure is a 1-ounce jig with a bulky trailer.

CREATE A DRAMATIC ARC

Your whole book has an arc, but every chapter should have a mini-arc. Ask yourself “What is the purpose of this chapter?” and then build your chapter around that. This does not mean each chapter needs a conclusion but it needs to feel complete unto itself even as it compels the reader onto the next chapter. The opening chapter should have its own rise and fall. It is not JUST A LAUNCHING PAD!

GET YOUR CHARACTERS TALKING

Dialogue is the lifeblood of your story and you need it early. Too much exposition or description is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. Likewise, don’t bog down your opening with characters doing menial things. Like fishing. Or thinking about boring stuff. Like fishing lures. Here’s some good advice from agent Peter Miller that I read once on Chuck Sambuchino’s Writer’s Digest blog: “My biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition, when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”

SO DOES THAT MEAN  I SHOULD OPEN WITH DIALOGUE?

This goes to personal taste. I’m not a fan of it, but I have seen it pulled off. But be careful because opening with dialogue tosses the reader into the deep end of the fictional pool with no tethering in time and place. This is like waking up from a coma. Where am I? Who are these people talking? I could be wrong because I haven’t read them all, but even Dialogue Demon Elmore Leonard gives you a quick couple lines or graphs first. (Okay, I’m wrong: LaBrava opens with “He’s been taking pictures three years, look at the work,” Maurice said.) But if your dialogue only leads to confusion, that isn’t good. Which relates to…

ESTABLISH YOUR SETTING AND TIME FRAME

The first chapter must establish the where and the when of the story, just so the reader isn’t flailing around. Yes, you can use time and place taglines, especially if your story is wide in geographic scope or bouncing around in time. But if your story is fairly linear and compact (taking place, say, all within six months time in Memphis), sticking a time tag on each chapter only makes you look like you don’t know how to gracefully slip this info into your narrative.

ESTABLISH YOUR TONE AND MOOD

First impressions matter. From the get-go, your reader should be able to tell what kind of book he is reading – hardboiled, romantic suspense, humorous, neo-noir? Yes, the cover and copy conveys this, but you need to convey it in your opening. Everything in your book should support your tone, but the first chapter is vital to inducing an emotional effect in your reader. I’ve mentioned Edgar Allan Poe’s Unity of Effect often here but it’s worth repeating: Every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact. But remember that a little mood goes a long way – think of a few swift and colorful brush strokes rather than gobs of thick paint.  Did you know that in the Everglades, intense daytime heating of the ground causes the warm moist tropical air to rise, creating the afternoon thundershowers? And that most of the storms happen at 2 p.m.? I should have just wrote “It rained in the afternoon.”

MAKE YOUR VOICE LOUD AND CLEAR

This is where you are introducing your story but also yourself as a writer. Your language must be crisp, you must be in complete control of your craft, you must be original! Shorter is usually better. No florid language or indulgent description, no bloated passages, no slack in the rope. The reader must feel he is being led by a calm, confident storyteller. See quote about by Stephen King about James M. Cain.

BACKSTORY AND EXPOSITION

The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Don’t be like a child overturning his bucket of toys — then it’s just a colorful clamor, an overindulgence of information. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it. Incorporating backstory is hard work, but you must weave it artfully into the story not give us an info-dump chapter 1.

Shoot-1

To end, let’s go back to Stephen King. So we know he admires James M. Cain. But what is his all-time favorite opening line? It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel Shoot. Here’s the set-up: A group of middle-aged guys, all war vets, are on a hunting trip. As they come to a riverbank, they spot another group of guys, much like themselves, on the other side. Without any provocation, one of the hunters on the opposite bank raises his rifle and fires at the first group, wounding one man. Reflexively, one of the first group returns fire, blowing the shooter’s head apart. The opening line: “This is what happened.”

And here is King on why he loves it:

“This has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s 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. A line like “This is what happened,” doesn’t actually say anything–there’s zero action or context — but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.

King loves it so much, he echoed it in the opening of of his own novel Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.”  And guess what? It’s his own favorite opening. Which is a good place to end, I think.

 

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The Case of the Thin Man and the Soft Opening

Here is today’s first page:
The thin man bent down and scooped up a handful of burnt red sand from a beach that no longer existed. He let the coarse bits spill from his palm and into a small glass vial, a calm smile spreading across his wrinkled face.
The man crouched in silence as he capped the vial, looking out over the horizon of the Galapagos archipelago as the sun set across them, orange tendrils stretching out between the clouds.
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth,” he said, still looking out into the distance.
He spun around a moment later when no reply came, cocking his head to the side. “Don’t you think, Agent Ward?”
Agent Eli Ward turned his attention toward the man and nodded in agreement. “Certainly,” he replied, tugging at the neck of his stuffy crimson uniform. Though it was near sunset and the air smelled of oncoming rain, the weather was muggy.
“That it is…” the man pondered, inserting the vial into a round slot in the large metal box beside him. The box held several other vials, all filled with different sorts of minerals. “Things sure are different  in our day and age, aren’t they? Not as simple anymore.”
Eli withheld his reply and glanced at the device on his wrist, tapping at its glowing display. It was slightly larger than a deck of cards, secured to him with an elastic band. “Dr. Vanderbilt, we’re on a tight schedule, I must insist…”
“Yes, I know, I know,” Vanderbilt replied in disappointment. He pushed himself to a stand, closing the lid on his collection of vials. He lugged the box up with a small grunt and came alongside Eli.
Eli tapped the display a couple times more. “Alright,” he said. “I think we’re ready. Let me see yours.”
Vanderbilt held his arm out to Eli, who took it. The device on Vanderbilt’s wrist was smaller than that of Eli’s, about the size of a digital watch. Since it received commands remotely from Eli’s device . . .
***
We start off without knowing who Vanderbilt is. He is called “The thin man” (a designation that should be reserved only for William Powell). But Vanderbilt’s identity is revealed a few paragraphs in. So why is it kept a mystery for six paragraphs? There’s no need for this.
Unless you want to create an ongoing mystery about who someone is, use their name up front. This is especially crucial for this piece, because we are not in a close POV. We are looking at this scene through objective and distant lenses. It would be much better if we were deep inside either Vanderbilt’s or Eli’s head throughout.
But I’m confused as to who the main character is supposed to be. The first four paragraphs make it seem this scene belongs to “the thin man.” But since he would not think of himself as “the thin man,” we’re either in an omniscient POV or with another character.
The only other character is Eli. But since he was not paying attention to the thin man, he can’t have observed what was going on in the first four paragraphs.
We are therefore in omniscient POV by default. Omniscient POV is not much in style anymore, save for epic length historical or speculative fiction. In what I am assuming is a thriller, it’s virtually non-existent. For good reason: Readers of a thriller get invested in it in direct proportion to their care for a character in trouble.
Every time a reader starts a novel, he’s asking (subconsciously) Who am I supposed to follow? And why?
We don’t get answers to those questions here.
This is also what I call a “Here we are in sunny Spain” opening. That is, it feels as if it’s mainly for set-up. Information is being given to us unnaturally. For example, this bit of dialogue:
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth”
This doesn’t sound like what the characters would really say to each other. It’s the kind of thing each character already knows. Dialogue such as this is the author feeding information to the reader, and true characterization suffers.
So here are my suggestions:
1. Whoever is the main character in this scene, use close 3d Person POV throughout. Everything from inside that one character’s head.
2. Cut these two lines of dialogue and adjust accordingly:
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth”
“Things sure are different  in our day and age, aren’t they? Not as simple anymore.”
  
Other thoughts?
***
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Pretty good is no longer good enough, whether one wants to be published traditionally or make a buck self-publishing. For writers interested in a 2 day intensive workshop designed to get your fiction to the next level and beyond, I’m coming to Austin, Nashville and Cincinnati this year. Details may be found here

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Limit the Exposition in Your Opening Pages

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell


Since I am the resident zombie fiction guy, the first page I’ve been given for critique is, not surprisingly:
Z.O.M.B.I.E. Squad:  Hot ZOMBIE Nights
Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. Drat. ZOMBIES. Not what she needed at the moment. How would she explain this to her new boyfriend?  Not the ZOMBIES per se, but the fact that this would be the third time this week that she’d bailed on dinner with him. Well, if he was a quality catch, he’d let her make it up to him, if not, there were other non-ZOMBIES out there in the world. Right?
There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of her M3, and it would definitely leave a mark.  Ok, “drat” just officially became “double-damn” the minute both her love life and her car became casualties. Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley. It always seemed to be us or them and just a street away from normal. Whoever thought that all aliens were smarter and more techno-savvy, never met a pod-ZOMBIE.
The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. Jaz could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. Ok, maybe she could see why someone who didn’t know better might think they were just the walking. Jaz’s chest heaved a bit as she took in one, deep, cleansing breath. It was warm, wet, and tasted a bit like the Cuban carne asada she’d planned on having for dinner. She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra: her $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Yes, they did match her Beemer perfectly. That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.
It pained her to risk her Dior bra by using it as a weapon holder, but without stockings, there were few choices to secure a pen-sized super weapon and keep it accessible.
****
Paranormal fiction. Zombies. You have to build a world, and that’s what the writer is attempting to do here, plus give us exposition to boot. And the instincts are good: weave the exposition within the action.
However, this opening is weighted too heavily on the informational (notice how “blocky” the text is on the page). It’s a common mistake made because the writer feels the reader has to be clued in to a lot of background before he can understand what’s going on.
Almost always a wrong choice. Because readers will wait a long timefor explanations so long as something is happening that is disturbing.
This first page delivers a great opening disturbance. To make it even more effective, let the action be primary and drop exposition in later, a bit at a time.
To show you what I mean, here is the opening rendered with just the action sentences:
Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of the M3.
She could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. 
She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra.
***
I am much more in this scene now. I want to keep reading. I want to know what that thing in her bra does.
The author has me hooked, and can begin to drop in exposition as needed. But keep it brief. The next lines might be:
Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley.  
Then get back to the action. Then later the stuff about the boyfriend. More action. And so on.
Also, I’d cut: The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. This is a “tell” just before the “show” of the next sentence. The latter creates a picture for the reader, who can then draw his own conclusion.
I like the voice that is “lurking” here. But it sounds “once removed,” e.g. in this line: That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.
This is the author commenting on Jaz, not something from Jaz herself. I wonder if the author might consider turning this into a First Person narration. Then the fun aspects of the voice could come out more naturally, e.g.:
I pulled the transonic pen-dart from my $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Matched my Beemer, too. But this was about date desirability. Hard work, but then again it was 3DP-vid god Wylie Taylor I was going to meet up with.
If I ever got away from these Zs.
That’s just a suggestion, something to consider. You can achieve pretty much the same effect in Third Person, but you should make sure the narration sounds like thoughts your character would actually think, and keep author commentary out of it.
I like this concept. Hey, fun zombie thrillers are my bag. So hook me with action in this first chapter and drop in only the exposition that is absolutely, positively necessary for the understanding of the scene.
It is much less than you think. And a much better start without it.

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The Flashback Quagmire

Today’s entry in the first page critique roundtable brings up the issue of flashbacks. Let’s have a look, and then we’ll talk.
***
Bobby was at a dead sprint when the first bullet hit him in the kidney. He went down hard face first on the concrete and fought to catch his breath. He’d never been in so much pain, but the adrenaline coursing through him forced him to his knees and back to his feet. He was bleeding badly, and his breath came in ragged gasps. He knew he was about to die but couldn’t bring himself to stop running.
The rotted corpse of Holy Cross High School, vacant for decades, loomed in front of him. If he could reach the school he might be able to hide from the men hunting him and die in relative peace. God only knew what they had in mind for him if they caught him.
Another shot was fired, but didn’t hit him. He knew he’d be easy to track with the amount of blood he was losing. He was growing light headed and his vision was clouding. He was struck by a sudden sadness at the thought of never seeing his family again, and wished he’d listened to his father when he told him to stay the hell out of New Orleans.
Hours earlier, Bobby was laughing and drinking beer in Johnny White’s bar on Bourbon Street. A natural extrovert, he did his best to keep a low profile but he couldn’t help chatting up some of the more attractive clientele. He never even noticed the young guy with a buzz cut watching him from across the bar.
The buzz cut didn’t miss a trick. He watched Bobby drink several beers, make time with a couple of vacationing coeds, and then settle his tab with a Kennedy half dollar. He made a note of the bartender’s name, and debated whether to include it in his After Action Report. It was handy to know who did business with freebooters in New Orleans, after all.
As Bobby was leaving the bar, the buzz cut bumped into him and apologized. It never occurred to Bobby that the stranger who bumped him planted an infrared tracking device on him. From then it was just a matter of time.
***

Let me say a couple of things about the first three paragraphs.
Our POV character in this scene is Bobby. And he’s been shot. He’s on the run. We have a chance, then, to become bonded to Bobby and his plight right away.
That’s why I need to feel a bit more of the pain and fear in Bobby. Right now I’m a little “outside” the action. Part of that is do to this passive construction: Another shot was fired, but didn’t hit him. We need to be in Bobby’s head. He heard another crack. Asphalt splattered in front of him. Etc.
It’s not enough to have an action opening. It’s what the action feels like to the character that’s essential. 
You’ve got a potentially arresting hook here, but for it work to the max we need that POV “heat.” See John G.’s post on Friday. Play the scene in your mind several times as if you were Bobby, then re-write it.
Okay, so now you’ve got this guy being shot at, chased and then . . . flashback!
Ahhhh!
Don’t do this. I know it feels like a little “teaser” but to the reader it’s more like a “cheater.” It’s too obvious you’re manipulating them by inserting a flashback to create an artificial cliffhanger.
So here’s a rule (even for people who say there are no rules in writing): No flashbacks in the first fifty pages! When you put in a flashback too soon it stops the action cold and jars the reader. It pulls them right out of the fictive dream you’ve been weaving. (Note, I am not talking here about a “frame story,” where we begin in the present then have the bulk of the book take place in the past. That’s another matter entirely.)
Also, you’re using an omniscient POV in the flashback. If Bobby never even noticed the young guy with the buzz cut, the only one who can see him is the author. This removes us further from Bobby. Keep the POV “hot” even in flashback scenes.
Now, what about flashbacks later in your fiction? Remember, by definition they stop the action, so you’d better have a very good reason for using one (e.g., essential character background info that is so crucial you need to dramatize it).
And if you do use a flashback it needs to stand alone as a scene, with all the sensory description and intensity of a scene from the main plot line.
Flashbacks. Handle with care. But in the opening chapters, don’t handle them at all.
***
Speaking of getting more emotional heat into your characters, that will part of My “Sell Your Novel and Screenplay Intensive” coming up June 4 & 5 in Los Angeles. 
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Opening No Nos

Writer’s Digest has come out with a special issue called “Write Your Novel in 30 Days.” It’s not their monthly magazine, but a stand alone. And it’s terrific. I say this not because I have a few articles in it (he notes with sly self-promo) but because it’s really got great substance cover to cover.
One section has a collection of things not to do in your opening chapter, based on statements by literary agents. Here are some clips (I highly recommend you read the whole issue).
Excessive Description
“Slow writing with a lot of description will put me off very quickly,” says Andrea Hurst. And this is something you’ll hear all the time.
So how do you set an opening scene? Do it with an interplay of action and description. Get the action started first, then fill in just enough information to tell us where we are.
But you’re a literary writer, you say? You love style? Well, if you’re really good, like Ken Kesey’s opening pages in Sometimes a Great Notion, go for it. But you can still start with action and drop in wonderful, styling description later.
Voice and Point of View Fuzziness
“A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point-of-view,” writes Cricket Freeman.
This is especially important when writing in First Person POV. We need voice, we need attitude. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Philip Marlowe in any of Chandler’s books. Don’t be bland.
Clichés
My friend, agent Chip MacGregor, lists several, including:
1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Done to death.
2. A trite statement (“Get with the program” or “Houston, we have a problem.”)

3. Years later, Monica would look back and laugh . . .
4. The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] land.
Other Pet Peeves
1. Descriptions making the characters seem too perfect.

2. Too much backstory.

3. Information dumps.

4. A grisly murder scene from the murder scene from the killer’s POV.

5. Dreams.

6. Too much exposition in dialogue.

7. Whiny characters.

8. Characters who address the reader directly.
So there you have it, a handy list of no nos in your opening. Does that mean these are “rules”? I know how you rebellious and creative writers hate rules, so no, they aren’t. But they will increase your odds of turning off an agent or editor.
So resist the temptation. When you get a deal, then you can fight to begin your novel another way if you see fit.
But first you have to sell, and these bumps will keep you from that goal.

Okay, let’s talk. What do you think of these no nos? Do you have others?

What do you like to see in an opening? What hooks you?
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The First Line Game

James Scott Bell

A number of my novelist friends share an e-mail loop, and from time to time we put up the first lines of our WIPs. It’s always fun to strut our stuff and see what others are doing.
First lines can also be an idea generator. Dean Koontz, in his book How to Write Best Selling Fiction (1981), told how he used to do this all the time, in order to find material. One day he wrote this:
“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.
He stared at it awhile, then decided Roy was fourteen and talking to a younger boy. And from that one line he developed what became The Voice of the Night.
Joseph Heller wrote this line, without knowing anything else: In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. This became the genesis of his massive satirical novel, Something Happened. (The line was moved further in by Heller once the book was finished, but it was the line itself that suggested the larger work).
I was at Bouchercon last week, in a good place because I had just submitted my manuscript to my editor. I am about to begin another novel, so sitting in the hotel lobby one afternoon, I was “in between.” I took out my notebook and wrote this line:
He had loved her since she was six years old.
Now, that is not my usual style, and it has the word had in it, which I would normally try to eschew. But that’s what I wrote. Then I kept on writing, to find out what the scene was about. When I got to the end of the page I had made two startling discoveries, both of which I’ll keep to myself as I may actually want to write this thing!
It is very cool to find ideas this way. Do you ever do that?
Okay, if you’re a writer, do you want to share the first line of your WIP?
If not, what is a favorite first line from a recent book you read? 

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Garlic Breath, or What Not to Do on Your Opening Page


“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”
– Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference

The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).
Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”
Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”
Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.
I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.
It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
Characters Alone, Thinking
This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.
Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:
Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?
Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.
They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?
Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.
Dreams
Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.
Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.
Exposition Dump
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
Weather Without Character
Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.
Point of View Confusion
Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.
1. We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
2. We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
3. We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time.
John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next.
The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
4. We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
5. We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.
So these are some very big don’t’ on your first page. Care to add more to the list?
And next week, I’ll tell you how to write an opening page that works . . .every time . . .in any genre . . .

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