Saturday, November 3, 2012

Struggling with an Opening

"It was a dark and stormy night...."

Of all the different parts of the writing process, I think none is as hard as writing the first sentence of the first chapter. The opening is so vital because it has to draw your reader in from the start and keep their attention long enough to decide that your book or story is worth reading further. One of my personal favorite opening lines is from the Harry Potter series because it does such a wonderful job of setting up the rest of the series while building intrigue for the readers. 

"Mr. Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive was completely normal, thank you very much." 

You immediately wonder who this Mr. Dursley is (isn't the main character supposed to be Harry Potter?). By being told that he is completely normal we understand that there must then be people who are not completely normal (setting up the muggle/magical dichotomy), and by including the smug "thank you very much" at the end, we realize that Mr. Dursley is proud to be normal, that there are people who would want to be normal rather than magical (setting up and foreshadowing several major plot points later) and establishing a very distinct narrative voice in the very first sentence. 

Another great opening line is from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol":

"Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt about that."

The beauty of this opening line is that by informing the readers that Marley was dead, the very first way most people tend to respond to that statement is to question the validity of it. If Marley truly is dead and if Marley's death leaves no room for doubt then why bring it up? Why start the book off by talking about the fact that Marley was completely and utterly dead? And then this leads to further questions, such as who Marley is, how he died, and who was affected by the death. All of these questions lead into the first paragraph detailing how Marley's death had been validated and how the entire process of the funeral had taken place, all without really answer any of the questions and only raising more for the readers, until we are finally introduced to Scrooge and are now committed to the narrative. 

Other opening lines may be meant to encourage further reading by making statements that the readers may either find ironic or contentious, such as the opening of  Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice":

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Not only does this opening again establish the narrative voice right off the bat, but in its declarative nature it established the thinking norms of many characters central to the plot, it foreshadows a predominant plot line, and it also gives a glimpse at the tongue-in-cheek satirical style that Jane Austen would carefully deploy at certain prime moments in her novel and invites a deeper reading bordering on social commentary. All of this just from that vital first line. 

As I started the journey of writing this year's NaNoWriMo, I was forced to face this problem of the opening line again. I knew what the first scene would contain. And I knew where it would go and how it would be a part of the larger frame tale of my plot (which is looking uncomfortably like an Ouroboros this year). But where to begin. I could just set the scene up and let it happen. And so I did:

"There is a creak from the old door as its rusted hinges are forced to grind against each other. The dry wind outside slams it shut, but not before the sillhouette of a man can be seen against the cloud churned sky. "

However, not only was this much too wordy, it was also completely lacking in any sort of hook to compel readers to keep reading. So I tried a different approach:

"All the other old buildings in the city had a stable built into the ground floor next to their entrances, so no one ever thought it was strange that the old Belmont Building had one too."

So this worked better because at the very least I managed to create a sort of narrative voice and I also managed to provide a tiny quantity of intrigue because I'm implying that there's something different about the Belmont Building's stable. But it needed to go further. I wanted to imply that there was a lot of things happening at the Belmont Building.

"The city had so many buildings that no one ever paid any attention to the old Belmont Building, or what went on there."

This helps because it immediately establishes the setting as well as the fact that there is something going on at the Belmont Building but no one is aware of it. Which isn't the most captivating first sentence but it is getting there. I tried to help it out by adding a second line.

"The city had so many buildings that no one ever paid any attention to the old Belmont Building, or what went on there. That was, until that night when the window of the penthouse had shattered and the body had smashed down on the brand new Model A Ford with a family of four in it. "

This helped to make things a bit more interesting but it also meant that I was being forced into a certain pattern of story telling that would be too far removed, more in the lines of Jane Austen's opening and further away from the Charles Dickensesque opening thats very personable and get's you into scenes much faster. So I tried to make it more personable.

"The chase began at the police station downtown. That's where Rodney snapped, threw the chair through the window, and ran down the street passing the still standing traffic."

I still wasn't quite happy with the opening but it would have to do for now. So I proceeded to write my first chapter and to get to know my character's voice a bit better in the process. And of course let it end with a cliche cliff hanger "But none of it had been the same since that night. The night Eddy and Vera died."

So yeah, as far as first chapters go I'm not impressed. But I'm gonna keep steaming straight ahead and I'll come back to fix it later. In the meantime, I now have to figure out exactly how much voice I can put into a first person narrative without it distracting from the story. But more on that in my next post.

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