Monday, September 30, 2013

A great opening line. . . ?

I just saw someone recommend this opening line as a REALLY GREAT opening for a novel.

"Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life. But first let me tell you a little about myself." -- Max Shulman, SLEEP TILL NOON (1950)

Max Shulman is the genius behind "Dobie Gillis" (yes, showing my age again, but I saw the show on Superstation KTVT in reruns, not during the original run! Still think Dwayne Hickman is hot.) He knew better than to start a book with something this ridiculous--but I believe he did this to make fun of the Mickey Spillane-style openings that are always being touted by a segment of the publishing world. Shulman knew this was an outrageously ridiculous opening, and that is why he used it, winking at his audience because he knew they'd understand. To open with something whizbang and then go immediately into a flashback of complete boredom . . . is bad. To open with gunshots without establishing why we should care and whether this is the good guy or the bad guy . . . bad. To EVER write, "and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life" is . . . wait for it . . . bad. Amateurish. Straight out of a junior high school "What I Did Last Summer" or "How I Lost on Jeopardy!" essay.

I'm perfectly serious. Shulman already had a following. They understood he was yanking their chains. You could not use that as a "straight" opening for a book today, even if you had a following, IMHO.

However, there are people who insist a book of any stripe should begin with what they feel is a REAL GRABBER. It doesn't matter whether the book is going to be a thriller or something else, you should always grab 'em with something outrageous, even if it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. "They'll forget," say these writers with confidence. They don't see a book with a last line that circles back to its opening and completes some sort of cycle (giving closure or illuminating some aspect of the eternal human condition--or just some aspect of a small personal life event) as being "better" or even "good." They believe what the workshop people have told them about having things open with a WHAM.

Why do I open MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS, the first Ari French mystery, with a scene between Ari and her big sister? They're bickering as they cooperate on a project, and the phone rings with the news that Ari's fiancé (who has been missing for a few weeks) has been found dead and that she has inherited everything. She accepts the invitation to come out to Marfa, Texas, and settle up Aaron's affairs. Her sister warns her not to go ("You don't know these people or anything about them. What if it's another one of his scams? What if it's someone who has Aaron and now is going to get YOU as well?"), but Ari is determined to go and tells her sister that these thoughts are paranoid. She'll fly in the morning.

Okay, WHY do I open the book this way? Some contest judges and judgmental types who have learned Da Roolz scream. "This is throat-clearing! You should open with her landing in Marfa and being met by the preacher!"

I could have done that. But this is not a thriller. It is a traditional/cozy that kicks off a series in which the two sisters sleuth, and their relationship is an ongoing part of the series. By opening with them together, readers are promised that they'll continue to experience this relationship and also get some background that they'll soon need in order to understand Ari's behavior and inclinations. If I hadn't done this, it would have been abrupt to have Zoe appear in Marfa a few days later (after she grows concerned about Ari's safety). I needed to set up their relationship and the protective sort of approach that Zoe takes. Also, Zoe becomes a hostage near the end of the book, and if she had been a drop-in ("Oh, yeah, I have a sister"), there would not have been any emotional investment on the reader's part. Many readers tell me that they like Zoe better than Ari and wish she were the POV character. This reveals that I did things right in getting that emotional investment early.

(In a previous journal entry, I explained why Zoe would be a particularly BAD POV character. She is a foil to Ari. That's why people like her. If she were the one observing the scene and making caustic remarks, she'd turn people off. There wouldn't be a big enough "save the cat" to rescue the book from that point on. Foils can be the ones who are abrupt, abrasive, funky, crazy, opinionated, and so forth. They are amusing and entertaining as well as informative. They reflect the hero/heroine in a better light. But if you were inside their heads, you wouldn't like it much, I'll bet.)

Never promise something in the first few lines of a novel that you do not intend to deliver. Had I opened the book with a BANG, people would have expected me to continue ramping it up. Pretty soon there's nowhere to go because you started at the top of the rollercoaster. If you are writing a cozy, promise the readers a cozy. That's your audience for the book. "The promise of the premise" in this book is that Ari will come to terms with Aaron's death (the ultimate abandonment of her after his earthly disappearance had already upset her) and that the sisters will stick together throughout these events. The solving of the murder and identification of the perp is there, but is secondary to the larger set of character arcs (including those of a few of the various suspects.)

Readers are smart. Trust them to understand what you are doing. If you know what you are doing, stick to your (um) guns and don't feel that you have to ZAP 'EM immediately. As long as you're entering the story on the day things changed, you have a little leeway to show the ordinary world before the heroine receives her call to adventure.

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