Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Opening Lines

Kristen Lamb had a similar post about this called In Media Res, a couple of weeks ago. And I think it's time we discussed this again. I know how topics come and go, and then come around again. But it seems to me that sometimes we just need to be reminded of stuff we know and thought we forgot.

Back when I was querying, I read a lot of agent blogs and they all said the same thing -- You need to have a great opening line, a fabulous "hook" to draw the reader in. Sounds good in theory, but I was never one to practice it. My stories start at the beginning (if that makes sense). I don't want to drop three paragraphs or chapters for that matter just because that's where the action is. I mean, just because you have a great opening line doesn't necessarily mean that the rest of the book won't suck. Believe me, I've seen this happen.

Standing in a bookstore, you open the novel, read the first page or three, plunk down $15- for something you think is going to be fabulous and once you get to the end, if you even GET to the end, you find out the $15- was wasted.

In my opinion, I'd rather start the book off a little more slowly and allow the reader to get the WHOLE idea of what is GOING to happen rather than just dumping them right into the zombie apocolypse, or the shoot out at the corner of 5th and Main, or into the middle of a conversation where you wonder who's speaking, and having them say, "What the hayzoo is going on?"

For example, when I started showing REMEMBERING YOU around, everyone told me to dump the first two pages and open when Genna first sees Tony at the diner. Then I could fill in all the backstory later. Uh, no. That's not where the story began. It began with her driving up interstate 95 and thinking how surprised Uncle Sal would be when he saw her. It began with her remembering what it was like to be home and why she left in the first place. It began with her nervousness and anxiety.

I mean, ten years is a long time to be gone, there's a boatload of emotions going and then, BLAM, there's Tony. I mean, that's like going to a funeral and having the dead person sit up in the casket.  It's an "Oh shit" moment. (Not an "Ah Ha" moment.) But as in "Oh shit, what is Genna going to do now?" I like to REACH the tension instead of just starting out with it.

Some people call that backstory. Others call it info dumping. I call it the beginning.

As a reader, no one would care about Genna and Tony and why the meeting was so significant if they didn't know she hadn't been home for ten years or why. And that's what the first two pages were all about. It's a lead in to the "Oh shit" moment.


Tell me --  Would you rather get dropped in to the action, or would you rather be led to it? Do the old publishing "writing rules" apply anymore?  Do we really need to "hook" a reader with the first sentence?
Anne Gallagher (c) 2013

10 comments:

Linda G. said...

I think with today's readers you have to give them a reason to keep going from line one on. Attention spans aren't what they used to be. *grin*

That said, I don't think you have dump readers into the middle of a car chase (so to speak). You just have to intrigue them enough to make them turn the page.

The story should start with the incident that changes things for your mc. The thing that marks the beginning of THIS story (whatever this story turns out to be).

Stacy McKitrick said...

I think beginnings depends on the genre. I don't mind slower beginnings with my romance. But for suspense and thrillers, I expect to be taken on a ride from the beginning.

Anne Gallagher said...

Linda -- I hear you on the attention span. I wonder whose fault that is? TV? School? New technology? I like that line -- The story should start with the incident that changes things for your MC. I'm so glad that's how I start my stories.

Stacy -- I hear you. Certain genres demand an immediate opening. Whereas, like you say, romance does not.

Bish Denham said...

You know, I think it all depends on the story. I don't mind either way. What I do mind is action for the sake of action. Sometimes it seems to me we have become a society that craves action with an inability to wait. There is no such thing as delayed gratification. I want it and I want it NOW. Hence... the all *important* first line.

Wendy aka Quillfeather said...

As long as the said book is well written it matters not to me. After all (like the old adage), it is the journey - not the destination. Well, that's my take on it :)

Liza said...

I think Linda explains it perfectly. I turned to one of my favorite books the Thorn Birds to see how it started: "On December 8th, 1915, Meggie Cleary had her fourth birthday." Not a crash bang start...but it was where this story started. It began with the gift she received that marked her as different from her brothers. It didn't lead up from the day she was born, the only girl in line of boys, or what happened before she turned four. It happened with that day...because that is where she became different from her siblings. Dropping your reader in the action doesn't mean it has to be in the middle of a car chase. You do however, have to drop your reader in a meaningful place...one that will engage them and, yes, keep them turning pages.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I prefer to start with action. I'm not talking about heavy action, but I won't last through several pages of introspection while a character is driving.

You know, Anne, if several people who have read your novel are saying that, maybe you should listen to them. ;)

Rick Daley said...

Most of the rules of writing come from over-thinking. Keepo it simple: Just write a sentence that makes them want to read the next sentence. Repeat.

Laura Pauling said...

There are definite reasons I don't purchase a book. And I think this is just personal taste. If the first page is filled with dialogue. That means nothing to me because I don't know the characters. I love a great opening paragraph that is just great writing and voice.

Action doesn't have to be a bear chasing you. Action can be forward movement, no matter how small. Something that sparks interested. But more than often for me, it's the writing combined with the blurb why I purchase or read on.

A lot of trad. books I read start with a couple paragraphs of introspection but it's done well. Great voice with a hint of conflict.

Nicki Elson said...

If I'm interested in reading the book for other reasons - interesting premise, an author I like, or good word-of-mouth - it doesn't matter to me how it starts. I appreciate background building before the "oh shit" moment, but I also don't have a lot of patience for drawn out background-giving of characters that I haven't really met yet - I feel like I get to know them best through what they do rather than their reflections on past history, you know?