Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of beginnings is brought to you by Melodie Campbell.
Open with a BANG!
Last term at Sheridan College, I asked my fiction writing students this question:
“How long do you wait when watching a movie or TV show before switching channels?’
Five minutes? Two minutes? 30 seconds? The responses varied, but averaged out at one minute.
I told them: “One minute. That is one page of movie script. The first page of a novel. So you are telling me that if the FIRST PAGE of writing doesn’t grab you, you don’t give the book/movie/sitcom a chance?”
Struck dumb, is how they looked. Yes, audiences are a fickle lot now. I’ve found editors to be even more demanding. You have to grab them on your first page these days, and better – with your first line!
How to do it?
Start in the middle of something. Start with action or dialogue. Do NOT open with the weather, or description of location, or simple back-story. Start with the meat.
Here’s an example from my novel, Rowena Through the Wall:
“I saw the first one right after class.”
This is a perfect opening line to teach from. This sentence does many things:
1. It opens with the protagonist. “I saw” – from this, we know that the book will be in first person – we are introduced to our protagonist.
In fiction, readers expect the first person they encounter, to be the protagonist. This is the character they expect to become attached to. Don’t disappoint them.
2. It opens with mystery: “I saw the first one…”
First one of what? And – it’s the first, so we know there will be more! Lots of questions to intrigue the reader.
3. It gives some clue to setting. “…right after class.”
In those well-chosen eight words, we have introduced the protagonist, the setting and a mystery.
Other good openers:
“He was a well-dressed burglar, Marge had to admit.” (from “School for Burglars”)
Marge is the protagonist – we are in her head and she is watching a burglary in progress. Talk about opening in the middle of something! And we have a picture of the burglar in our minds.
“The thing that shocked Emily was how incredibly easy it was to hide a murder.” (from “Life Without George”)
Emily is the protagonist, and probably a murderer. Will she get away with it? Will we want her to get away with it?
And from the masters:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” (from Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier)
We know this is a first person story – we have met the protagonist. We know Manderley is a setting, and is important to the story because of that last word – ‘again’.
“I’d been waiting for the vampire for years, when he walked into the bar.” (from Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris)
First person again, protagonist in the first line, vampire is key to the story, and we know the setting.
All this, from one line. Open your books with a bang! Your readers will keep reading.
And maybe an editor will even get past the first line.
Thank you, Melodie! My favourite is Iain Banks’ from Crow Road: ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’. I wrote one recently for one of my Tuesday Tales stories called Root of all evil which a reader has told me is one of his favourites: ‘Thelma was your root of all evil, not money’.
Melodie Campbell has over 200 publications and was a finalist for the 2012 Derringer and Arthur Ellis awards. She is the General Manager of Crime Writers of Canada. Library Journal says this about Melodie`s third novel,
The Goddaughter (Orca Books, Sept. 2012): “Campbell`s crime caper is just right for Janet Evanovich fans. Wacky family connections and snappy dialogue make it impossible not to laugh.”
THE GODDAUGHTER on Amazon.
A PURSE TO DIE FOR on Amazon.
We got through the border with no problem at all this time. Of course, it’s much easier to get through borders without a semi-frozen dead body pretending to be asleep in the back seat.
Morgen: I love that.
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.
The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with crime novelist Alan Tootill – the four hundred and ninety-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are weekly episodes, usually released Monday mornings UK time, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.