Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Don't Be a Snoopy: Open with a Bang!

We've all been there before.  We're reading a brand new book, brand new story, but it's going nowhere fast.

Whether you're a writer or a reader, the opening of a book--the first line, if you will--is as important as the characters and their GMC.  Without a snappy opening, a reader might decide it isn't worth the read, in spite of an ending that will blow them away and a middle that not only doesn't sag but soars.

A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.  Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor. (Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native c.1878)

Times have changed.  Back in the Stone Age, when I was in high school, we read quite a few classic novels, then wrote different types of papers on what we read.  While I can't recall exactly what the paper was about, I do remember being told by my (excellent!) Senior English teacher that if we were reading Thomas Hardy, we could skip the first 50 pages, read the rest of the book, then go back and read those first 50 later.  Why?  Because those first pages were little more than description of the heath he loved so well, and they were boring.  Really boring. (see above quote)   By the time Mrs. Dalbom told us that, I was already over 100 pages into Return of the Native.  No, not Hardy's most famous Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  I chose the lesser known book.  I can honestly say I had to force myself through those 50 pages, but I probably learned something.  Books need to open with a bang.  (By the way, I still have the book.  And, yes, it's printed, not carved on the walls of a cave.)

Readers today include all kinds of people who are eager for a good read.  They want to be caught up in the story from the very beginning.  While "setting the stage" is important, spending more time doing that instead of getting to the meat of the story can be disastrous.

Try these on for size:

Cooper Adams had stared death square in the face and lived to tell about it.  But his recovery from a run-in with the meanest, nastiest rodeo bull the good Lord ever blessed with the breath of life, couldn't compare with the uphill battle he faced now. 
(Cowboy Boss, Kathie DeNosky)

Her sensible black pumps held tightly in one hand, Anastasia Devereaux plastered her back to the brick wall behind her, took a deep breath and waited for the fog to clear from her glasses.  "Don't look down," she whispered when the haze evaporated.  "You can do this if you don't look down."
(Lonetree Ranchers: Brant, Kathie DeNosky) 

He wore his all American good looks like a merit badge, but the devil in his dark eyes told Erin Brailey this man was no Boy Scout.  
(His Sheltering Arms, Kristi Gold)

"Let's have a baby, Whit."
(The Pregnancy Negotiation, Kristi Gold)

In each of the above, we get a quick glimpse of who the character is and a promise for conflict.  It sounds simple enough, doesn't it?  And sometimes it is.  There are times when it comes out perfect on the first try.  Other times, the idea is there, but there needs to be some tweaking.  Then there are those times when nothing comes to mind, and it takes a little work and a lot of thought to come up with something that will make the reader want to read more.

I've been lucky.  Most of the time the opening comes easy.  It's a good thing, because I can't move forward until I have that first line(s) firmly in mind.  I'll be the first to admit that some are better than others, and the following are the ones I like best.

Sinking onto the leather chair behind the massive oak desk that proclaimed him head honcho, Trey Brannigan ran a hand down his face.  The day wasn’t over yet.  Plenty of time for more to go wrong.

Devon Brannigan tugged at the black leather patch covering his left eye and tried to find a more comfortable position on the hard church pew.  He couldn’t believe his good luck.  In only a matter of time, he’d finally have his hands on his no-good, greedy former neighbor.  Once J.R.’s wedding vows were spoken, and the newlyweds departed for the reception, not only Dev, but all three Brannigan brothers would taste the sweetness of revenge.

Becca Tyler limped her car to the side of the road, the vehicle lurching every few inches because of the flat tire.  Coming to a final, slow stop, she turned off the engine and pressed her forehead against the smooth, cold leather on the steering wheel.
What now?

“Keep your hands where I can see them, and back on down that ladder real slow.”  The voice was soft and low.  Distinctly feminine.  And definitely not joking.

Trish Clayborne sat in the warmth of her car at the stop sign, blinking away the tears filling her eyes.  Home.  She was almost home.

Pain shot up his leg and knee, radiating into every inch of his body, but Tucker O’Brien worked through it as the nurse stepped out of the examining room.  He hadn’t planned to be in the small doctor’s office in Desperation, Oklahoma, but nothing was going as he’d thought it would.

The thing to remember is that all of these openings are about the character.  While some may mention the setting or surroundings--which is always a plus--it's there only as a backdrop to the character.  Something is happening to that character or has just happened to bring him or her to this particular time and place.  There's often an urgency that will make the reader want to know more, and the only way to know more is to read the book.

Start the book where something has changed and include how the character feels about it. This is the perfect place to practice "show don't tell."  Backstory isn't needed.  There's plenty of time for that...such as throughout the rest of the book.

Now it's your turn to share.  What's your favorite opening line?  In your book or someone else's?

*Thanks to Kathie DeNosky and Kristi Gold for sharing their first lines.
Writing is a fairly lonely business unless you invite people in to watch you do it, which is often distracting and then have to ask them to leave.
- Marc Lawrence


Kathie DeNosky said...

Great advice on opening a book, Roxann. It's one of the first lessons a writer needs to learn and you've explained it beautifully.

Kathie DeNosky

Rox Delaney said...

Thank you. I had a great teacher. ;)

Theresa Leschmann said...

Your examples really drive the point home.Wonderful post!

Tammy Lee said...

Just finally got the chance to read this and what great examples! Definitely good advice. Thanks for sharing!

Rox Delaney said...

Thank you, Theresa! I love opening lines and paragraphs, and because examples always help me, it seemed the perfect time to share some. Thanks for stopping by!

Rox Delaney said...

Tammy, thanks for stopping by the blog! I hope you found something helpful. The opening of a book is so important, yet sometimes we forget. If the examples are any help, that's great!