Wednesday, July 4, 2012

And they say it rots your brain...

by Chris F. Holm

Man. I drew the short straw this week. I mean, who wants to read my inane blathering when they could be eating hot dogs and blowing stuff up in celebration of our nation's birth? Speaking of, happy Independence Day, y'all. Kindly refrain from blowing up anything that won't grow back.

Now, onto the topic at hand. One of the reasons I got into writing is that it retroactively recasts every bit of reading, internet noodling, and televisual obsessing I've ever done as research, rather than mere slacking. And to that end, I'd like to recommend a technique that works for me when it comes to penning the first chapter of a novel: namely, aping the old TV-writer's trick of the cold open.

The cold open was first conceived as a tease to hook the audience before the title sequence, meant to keep viewers from changing channels between programs. A well-constructed cold open is typically both thrilling and brief, a jolt of in media res adrenaline that hurls the viewer into the thick of the action, typically ending with some kind of twist or cliffhanger to keep folks guessing through the first commercial break. In short, it's the hammer that ignites the powder of the episode. And a good one will propel the viewer clear through to the end of the hour to find out what happens.

Cold opens come in all shapes and sizes. Some, like those often employed on J.J. Abrams' Alias, pluck a choice moment from the story's climax, only to hit you with a title card upon return from the commercial break declaring 72 Hours Earlier, leaving you to wonder how things went so wrong so fast. Some, like the ones favored by investigative procedurals (from House and Fringe to Castle and CSI), feature the crime to be investigated, focusing on perpetrator and victim rather than protagonist. The point isn't so much content as structure and flavor. They're a hit-and-run. They're your best sucker-punch. They're that devastating comeback you never think of until the moment passes. What they're not is exposition, character studies, or back-story. Why? Because they're built for speed. They're built to thrill. And there's no room for luggage in an Indy car.

Next time you're watching your favorite show, pay attention to those opening scenes. Then steal their pace and rhythm shamelessly. I bet you'll be pleased with the result.

I'm not saying every opening chapter needs to play by the rules of the cold open. All I'm saying is it works for me. But then, you don't have to take my word for it. Here are the first three chapters of DEAD HARVEST. Read 'em and decide for yourself. Chapter One serves as my cold open. Chapter Two begins to fill in the blanks, answering some of the questions posed by Chapter One. If I've done my job right, you'll get that far.

And if not, there's always hot dogs and cold beer...


Meredith Cole said...

Now that I'm done digesting (and my beer has become warm), I thought I'd drop in and see the blog was doing. Love your idea of the cold open, Chris--the more thrilling the better. Thanks for sharing and happy day after the 4th!

Chris said...

Thanks, Meredith! You as well!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips and the great read. I made it to the end of chapter 3 and was hooked.

I've downloaded it for my iPad and can't wait to read the rest!

Chris said...

Thanks, Sheri! Glad to hear the post -- and excerpt -- were to your liking. Hope the rest lives up!