How to Open Without a Bang
by Alex KeeganGrab your reader with an opening! Right? Have a man walk in with a gun, set the bomb ticking, the lovers begin to undress? Oh, how many stories I've seen with a slam-bang start like that, and oh, how many have immediately gone to a flash-back, admitted the dream or simply fizzled, spluttered and dribbled slowly away.
The nuclear bomb opening I see as the medallion man of literature, more flash than substance, more likely to lead to disappointment than satisfaction. It's the confident whisper, the self-assured promise I look for, the paragraph which quietly says, "I don't need bells and whistles. Listen, listen." And the story may be so quiet that I have to lean forward. I am tilted into the body of the work, disconcerted, or intrigued by setting, attracted by character or seduced, simply seduced, by the sounds and shapes and meaning of the words.
Saturday afternoon and Dai Griffiths sits with his finger-polished roll-up tin. He is patient, fixated, listening. His tongue protrudes slightly as he makes his careful, half dog-end tobacco, half Old Holburn, delicate, thin cigarettes. It is raining outside the pub and along the valley side snake-terraced roofs glisten. The afternoon light closes.
I want to know. And that's all it takes. Make the reader want to know more.
Rather than use the verb "grab", I like to suggest "tilt". I want to push my readers just a little, not slam them so hard they resist me, but persuade them that this road is interesting, one of ultimate promise. My job (first) is to ensure they reach (and want to read) the second paragraph, that the second begets the third and that the whole of the first page is strong enough to quiet the TV, block out the conversation on the train, or more importantly, wake up that tired editor, that jaded judge.
It was now lunch-time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining-tent pretending that nothing had happened.
"Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?" Macomber asked.
A famous opening from a famous story, Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. What's fascinating about this opening is that, yes, the tilt is there - if someone says "pretending that nothing had happened" you betcha I want to find out what did happen - but look what Hemingway chose not to start with. The story has to flash back (eventually) to an incident of high drama when Macomber panicked faced by real danger. Surely, surely, with such a gift we should start with the dramatic action?
But Hemingway had the drama still to come -- so we await it. He didn't start with something climactic -- after a climax is anti-climax - but promised us at least one. The work shows self-confidence, the ability to present seemingly innocuous events well, but in such a disarming, confident way we simply feel the power to come. But there's more to this opening. It was chosen to guide the reader into what the story was really about, not big-game hunting and cowardice or bravery, but what these things meant to the sexual relationships of the three main characters. By starting with the "ordinary" drinks scene, Hemingway was able to steer us, the readers towards the core of the story. We get to see and feel the coldness and unhappiness of Macomber and his wife -- exacerbated by Macomber's lack of physical courage -- and it's through courage that Macomber eventually gains self-respect and a fleeting but glorious happiness.
So yes, an opening must promise us a diverting story, but also it should be right for the story, not just a good opener but the best, the most apt opener. When we take time to "find" our opener, to find the exact character, setting, tone of voice and point of view, when we wait and let the opener float until it begins to resonate as solid and true, then, often the story falls in front of us like dominoes, sentence after sentence begetting sentence, driven by the feel, the force, the organic predictability contained within the start.
He wondered what the sex would be like. She thought it would be good. When she asked him, "Do you think it will be good, Harry?" he knew it would be great. But that was later.
Sometimes we just know from the opener...
When I began writing I leaped on ideas, rushed to grab a pen or typewriter, and started. More often than not I crash-landed, and even when I did finish things they sucked and didn't sell. Now I've learned a little patience, an ounce of forethought, a few minutes of consideration and now, rather than dive into a story, I'm more likely to climb into a bath, a half-bottle of wine close by, and wallow, body and mind. My story idea may well be weeks, months, even a year old. It has been fermenting in my unconscious, a particularly unsavoury and mixed up place. I went there once, right next to The Old Man and the Sea was Three Blind Mice, a picture of an old girlfriend, the guitar riff from Pulp Fiction and... the rest is censored. But somewhere in the mess there is a story -- at least I hope there is -- and I want to coax it out. If I shout, it will run away, if I do nothing it will sit there, but if I just make little coaxing noises, show I'm friendly out pops an opening, a tone, my protagonist, complete with accent and attitude.
The opening almost comes. Here is where I have another glass of wine and top up the hot water. I've learned that if the opening really comes to me, if the character pushes through the fog and steps into my world, if he is ready to live, really ready, not a good one but the one, then I just know, little bells ring, presses run, music plays, the opening resonates, buzzes, sings. The almost openings flutter in an out but the opening doesn't. It comes with a life, a history, a destiny. Truly, getting the exact feel is more than half the story.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, "One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily." Absolutely, Gabriel! "In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book." Yes! Yes! "The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be." Smack on! "That's why writing a book of short stories is much more difficult than writing a novel. Every time you write a short story, you have to begin all over again." (Excellent, he should go far).
Yes an opening should interest, tilt us forward, but an opening does far more; it sets the agenda, it makes not just promises to us, but suggests to us how we should react, what mood we are likely to find here, how best we might take on the upcoming dream.
Tom is watching a movie with his mistress when something in the story-line touches him, and breaks through his well-constructed façade. His defenses breached, he thinks of his son and his small daughter. He begins to cry soundlessly. When his mistress realises her lover is upset, she tries to be kind, but her kindness makes the guilt worse and Tom snaps at her. She doesn't understand.
Once there were many prairie dogs and they decided their kingdom was fine and suited the prairie dog way of life. Some prairie dogs were large, some very small, but most of the prairie-dogs were middle-sized and their bark, more a yap, was conservative.
Two openings, but the contract with the reader is different.
I hope my openings are directive. I want them to intrigue and seduce but I want them to channel the story as a whole, to create in the reader a sense of a joint adventure, one of a type. If I'm trying to be funny, I need the reader to be thinking light music, not Beethoven's Fifth. If I want "serious", I don't want him whistling The Birdie Song. Like Gabriel Marquez, my openings take time but they contain the organic nature of the story as a whole, the theme, the tone, where I'm coming from, where I want the reader to go.
Look at the opening to Catch-22.
It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him. Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn't quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn't become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this being just short of jaundice all the time confused them.
We get the main character, the tone, the craziness, the feel, immediately.
Or Cuckoo, mine.
Cold Monday morning, six o'clock. November. Brighton sea-front had to be grey, windswept and damp. It was, but as far as Caz Flood was concerned, it was the only place, the perfect place to be. Yesterday she had been a beat copper, a woodentop, today she was a DC, a detective constable, and nothing, but absolutely nothing, could stop her now.
Or Brighton again, Graham Greene.
Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn't belong - belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd.
Or Raymond Chandler.
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Oh, I wish!!
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.