Writerly Wednesdays: Openings

I think it’s obvious: beginnings are important. You want to capture your audience, give them a reason to keep reading.

There’s some debate among writers (especially aspiring writers–which I’m one of) about how to capture your audience, and even whether it’s necessary to do so. Some writers are of the opinion that the first chapter or chapters should be used to introduce your setting and characters, to ease your audience into the story. Others are of the opinion that you need a HOOK (in all caps) within the first three sentences to make sure you catch hold of your reader.

Like with a lot of things, I think most writers (especially aspiring ones!) over-complicate the matter. Do you need to capture your readers’ attention? Yes. Do you need to set a bomb off under their nose? No. Do you need to give your readers some idea of the place and characters? Yes. Do you need to bore us to death? No.

It’s easy for a nervous writer to underestimate their readers and think that literal explosions–or murder, or mortal peril or what have you–are necessary to get a hearing from potential readers. I’ve seen many a-story begin by breathlessly presenting us with a baffling situation of peril: breathless because the writer is trying to tell us within two or three sentences how dire the situation is; baffling because we don’t know who the characters are, what they’re doing, or why; and peril because, well, it always seems to be some horrible situation. Sometimes, the “peril” is simply melodrama, and it ends up being nothing more severe than a slight nosebleed. Take a breath, y’all, and give us a reason to care about the person before placing them in mid-air without a parachute, or standing before a judge on murder charges, or whatever. And please don’t trick us, the reader, into a false sense of dread just so you can get our attention.

There’s also the opposite problem. Some writers in general over-describe or ramble. They like to hear themselves talk, and their beginnings are no different. We begin with a paragraph describing a tree, or a character lazily waking up and going through a completely normal morning routine. The tree is almost certainly not important, and we almost certainly don’t care about the character’s coffee. Give us a reason to care about the tree, and for God’s sake, take it easy on the description. Give us some reason to suspect that the day-in-the-life shit is leading somewhere, and for God’s sake make us care about the character.

The most important thing is to begin at the beginning, not too early and not too late. How do you know when that is? In my experience, it’s trial and error. Some writers, I think, might be able to figure it out before they put pen to paper. But for me, I have to feel my way into it. I have two completed novel-length manuscripts and an almost-completed novella: each of them had their own beginning issues.

My first project is about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (it spawned this blog, of course). I spent several months trying to figure out how to tell the story. I couldn’t decide which historical person would be main character, no less where to begin. Even when I settled on telling it from Nicole d’Oliva’s perspective, I had to decide how to start. In one iteration, I began with Jeanne de La Motte’s punishment in front of the Palais de Justice. But that was too late. At another point, I began with Marie-Antoinette’s execution, but that was far too late. I also tried beginning with Nicole’s childhood, but that was too early. Once those possibilities were out of the way, I hit upon the only obvious alternative, which ended up being the right one: I began with Nicole meeting Nicolas de La Motte in the Palais-Royal. For Nicole, everything else sprang from there.

My second project is about the Antebellum South and gave me even more trouble than Grove of Venus. I didn’t have a historical framework to use: I had to figure it all out from scratch, and it was a difficult process. I started in many different places, with characters who changed dramatically as time went on. In some versions, I began with a journey to Georgia. In others, I began with the death of Caroline’s father (he doesn’t die in the completed version). In other versions yet, I led off with Caroline’s brother coming to her for help after he killed his friend in a duel. But none of those were quite right. It’s one of those things you can’t quite explain. It’s just a feeling. That’s why I usually require trial-and-error, because I can never be sure what will “feel” right until I write it.

Finally, I hit upon the right place to start Channing: the duel itself. This allowed me to start off with a bang (ha! get it?), and quickly introduce the characters and the inciting event. It also matches up nicely with (spoiler alert) the shootout at the end of the novel.

My third project is a novella about a wounded Civil War soldier returning home. I had no problems figuring out where to begin, because it was the beginning that came to me first. I’d been thinking about taking the Beauty and the Beast story, stripping it, rearranging it, and setting it during the Civil War. I got an image of the wounded soldier (an amputee) arriving at his burned home and flinging himself onto the ground, thinking about the quiet of that spot compared to the roar of battle. The rest of the novella came from there, and came surprisingly easily.

My favorite literary openings are from Huckleberry Finn (“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”) and Jane Eyre (“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”), which not incidentally happen to be two of my favorite books of all time. They openings are interesting, but not in the explosions-and-gunfire kind of way. We’re left to wonder, well, who are “you”, and why doesn’t it matter who you are? and why was there no possibility of a walk, and why does the narrator care so much? That, I think, is the key: putting a question in your readers’ minds that gives them a reason to read on.

To add a bit of interest to the thread, I’ll add the first few sentences of each of my most recent projects. As a bonus, I’ll throw in the beginning of a work-in-progress, a prequel to Channing. I hope they work for everyone! Would you read on?

From Grove of Venus:

When I was a little girl, my mother told me not to look at the young women who stood in the midst of the Palais-Royal and hiked their skirts up to their knees. She told me to turn away from them. With my little face averted, my eyes peeked backwards at the lurid sight of men clustering, hooting, admiring, and haggling.

From Channing:

A sharp wind blew across the hill where two young men stood apart, facing one another across the distance. The hill was thrown into a sudden burst of sunlight. It had been raining in wild fits all day as they travelled to that hill for the duel.

From Hamilton Gray:

The smoke and noise of battle had faded away into memory, and Hamilton Gray lay in the tall grass before his home, staring up at a clear blue sky. He used his good hand—his only hand—to remove the cigar from his lips, and blew a stream of smoke into the air. Middle of spring. Birds calling out to one another in the various contraltos of their joyfulness. Hot sun on his cheek.

From Channing’s prequel:

Charles and Archibald Daniels sat together in the theater box, their arms resting on the railing before them. Their faces, lit by the ersatz light from the stage below, wore identical looks of absorption. Their eyes—the exact same shade of gray—followed the girl as she moved across the boards like a wisp of smoke from a dream.

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