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Guest post: Open with a BANG! by Melodie Campbell

13 Sep

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.

Follow Melodie’s comic blog at http://funnygirlmelodie.blogspot.com and her website is www.melodiecampbell.com.

The following is an excerpt from THE GODDAUGHTER:

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.

You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything… and follow me on Twitter where each new posting is automatically announced. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at SmashwordsSony Reader StoreBarnes & NobleiTunes BookstoreKobo and Amazon, with more to follow. I have a new forum and you can follow me on Twitter, friend me on Facebook, like me on Facebook, connect with me on LinkedIn, find me on Tumblr, complete my website’s Contact me page or plain and simple, email me.

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.

 
24 Comments

Posted by on September 13, 2012 in ebooks, ideas, novels, tips, writing

 

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24 responses to “Guest post: Open with a BANG! by Melodie Campbell

  1. Melodie Campbell

    September 13, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Thanks for this guest post, Morgen! I love your ‘Thelma’ first liner. I’ll add that to my list, with your permission (with credit, of course!)

     
  2. morgenbailey

    September 13, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Of course, feel free :)

     
  3. Garry Ryan

    September 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Thanks for getting us to think about this. My favourite opening line has always been “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” by E.B. White in Charlotte’s Web.

     
    • morgenbailey

      September 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm

      That’s really sad because we all now know where he’s going. :(

      Great to hear from you, Garry, thank you.

       
  4. Kevin Thornton

    September 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    One of the best is from Michael Connelly’s The Poet. “Death is my beat.”
    And I hope this opening line in a work in progress of mine will one day be joined by a closing one.
    “The Problem with blood is that it sticks to your skin,” said Jonathan, in between the screams of the electric saw.
    Nice column Mel.

     
    • morgenbailey

      September 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      I love that, thank you Kevin.

       
    • Melodie Campbell

      September 14, 2012 at 12:24 am

      Kev, I will definitely NOT be reading your book with that first line! What a stunning opening. ‘shiver’

       
  5. Alison Bruce

    September 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Since you helped me with my opening paragraph – by making sure it was the opening paragraph – I consider myself student in the school of Melodie.

    It was no longer raining. It made no difference. Detective Kate Garrett was already soaked and mud oozed over her shoes as she picked through the bushes in the overgrown industrial lot, looking for evidence of illegal drugs.

     
    • morgenbailey

      September 13, 2012 at 9:40 pm

      Another familiar face. Lovely to hear from you, Alison.

       
  6. Patricia Gligor

    September 13, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Melodie,
    “Open with a bang” – how true!
    When I wrote the first (and several subsequent) drafts of my mystery novel, “Mixed Messages,” I started out slowly. My intention was to gradually build suspense – reminiscent of the “Once upon a time” stories when I was a child.
    My critique group quickly opened my eyes. The final draft (and published book) starts with dialogue that takes the reader right into the story. Needless to say, I’m grateful to my critique partners.

     
  7. J. R. Lindermuth

    September 13, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Like the appetizer before the meal, it has to convince you to stay at the table. Advice worth repeating, Melodie.

     
  8. Marja McGraw

    September 13, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    Terrific post, Melodie. I enjoyed all the lines you and readers contributed, too. I really need to work on my opening lines. Thanks for the reminder.

     
  9. Melodie Campbell

    September 14, 2012 at 12:22 am

    Wonderful comments – thanks so much, everyone! I’ve enjoyed all the great opening lines you’ve posted, as well as your kind words.

     
  10. Nathan Weaver (@babylontales)

    September 14, 2012 at 12:32 am

    I totally agree about starting with a bang. I find that short prologue of action is often a great way to let the reader know what they are in for, and keep them hooked to move forward a little more. It can also be useful, if the prologue or opening chapter is pulled from a later part of the story, and then you catch up to it later.

    Thanks for sharing.

     
  11. johnmdaniel

    September 14, 2012 at 12:35 am

    I believe the best storytelling is done in scenes, not discourse. And each scene should begin with either action or dialogue, to grab the reader and hold on tight.

     
  12. Lou Allin

    September 14, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Morgen gives great interviews, and yours is a keeper, Mel! Orientation mixed with suspense. Can’t help but read on. Opening with a bang is important, and way better than with a whimper.

     
  13. Yvonne Hertzberger

    September 14, 2012 at 4:24 am

    Now I wish I had left the prologue off my second novel. The first line in the first chapter is “I felt no pain now.” Isn’t hindsight wonderful. Sigh.

     
    • morgenbailey

      September 14, 2012 at 7:34 am

      Don’t worry Yvonne, people never read prologues anyway. :)

       
  14. Melodie Campbell

    September 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Laff! Yvonne, I agree with Morgen. I’m one of those who don’t read prologues, so your opening line is perfect. (Why don’t we read prologues? I’ve thought about this for some time. I think it’s because we want to meet the protagonist first, so we know who we should care about, and prologues happen *before* the real story.)

     
  15. Cynthia St-Pierre

    September 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I’m the supreme lucky one. I got to co-write a novel with Melodie! A PURSE TO DIE FOR is a cross-genre romantic suspense/Agatha-Christie-style cozy and we started it like this.

    Gina ran. Each pounding step took her further away from the death of her grandmother, the house full of relatives and thoughts of Tony.

     
  16. Yvonne Hertzberger

    September 14, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks Melodie: See, now, I DO read prologues, which is why I was in such a dilemma. It’s only 1 1/2 pages and provides the link to the previous but but …… Oh.well. No prologue for book three. :-)

     
  17. Sally Carpenter

    September 14, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    I agree opening pages can make or break a reader’s interest. Here’s the opening line in my WIP, the second book of the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol mystery series: “My first day back on the studio lot in fourteen years and I stepped on a dwarf.” Wanna read more?

     

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