Monday, August 19, 2019

Grabbing the reader

Q:  Readers often read the opening few lines or page to a book before deciding to buy. What makes an opening sentence stand out above the rest? Give examples of openings, including your own, that you believe work brilliantly. Any tips or lessons learned for new authors about what to avoid on that first page?  

-from Susan

Multiple award-winning crime fiction wrier Rhys Bowen gave me the most important bit of advice about that opening page. She had just read my first 20 pages and smiled her lovely smile and said in her charming British accent, “Well, it’s all lovely, but your story actually begins on page 19.”

I had stuffed the first part of what became my debut novel with such interesting material. Alas, it was interesting only to me. Back story, detailed setting descriptions, exposition on the protagonist’s reasons for being there, smart little observations about the museum world. Charming but going nowhere.

A jangling cell phone and a barked order to get downstairs fast because “All hell’s breaking loose” moved from page 19 to page two, with just enough first person narrative ahead of it to set some context and give readers a taste of Dani’s attitude toward life and work. The information that a body has fallen from the museum’s high windows is on page four. 

It’s not that what I had included wasn’t important to know, Rhys said, just that none of it needed to be pushed at the reader before something happens, before the reader cares. And, indeed, everything that turned out to be important was tucked in here and there throughout the book. In fact, because I wanted the reader to understand her fraught relationship with her ex-husband, I allowed him to enter as a character, not an element of her back story, and he bloomed into an indispensible part of her current life, much to my surprise. Had I not listened to Rhys, he would have remained a cardboard cutout somewhere in the past.

The books I like best draw me into the setting and create enough of a character sketch that I can relate to the protagonist on some level right away. I believe strongly in Rachel Howzell Hall’s LA homicide detective Lou Norton. Everything she does makes perfect sense because of the way Hall pulls me into Norton’s life. Here’s how SKIES OF ASH begins:

I took Greg back the first time because he said he loved me.

I took Greg back the second time because my heart still ring-a-dinged every time he touched me. 

I took Greg back the third time because my sister’s bones had been discovered after twenty-five years and my heart and my head had become tangled messes and I needed him to fix me. 

Boom! We hear her voice, we get a sense of her needs and vulnerabilities, and then Hall hits us with the mystery.

I am not someone who believes you need a body on the first page, or even the tenth. What you need within a page or two is intimations of a conflict, a problem, a peculiarity, something that makes you curious. You want to get a whiff of something not as it should be, presented in the context of a character you can, on some level, identify with.

That’s a start, anyway. I know my Minds colleagues will have much more to add.


Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, I think your example of your story where you moved the action from page 19 to page 2 is a good one. Too many people start with too much back story. I agree with you that you don't need a murder (or a body) on page one, but you do have to have something intriguing. Once, when I was doing my script doctoring gig I cut the whole first act of someone's screenplay. Opened on Act II, and slipped in just a bit of what she had in her first act into the rest of the story. Most of it wasn't even necessary in any way.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Excellent post, Susan.

Susan C Shea said...

Paul, how did the author of the original screenplay take the cut? Or don't the original writers have any say? I think Rhys's advice worked for me because she explained it so well and because she thought I had a good story. I still tend to move more slowly to the crime than most authors and sometimes get dinged in reader reviews for it, but I want to tell stories that go beyond the murder.

Terry said...

Oh, that pesky back story. I'm reading The Widows of Malabar Hill right now (yeah, I know, tardy), and the way Massey weaves in the back story is masterful.

Also, after all your struggles, the way Murder in the Abstract began was perfect.

Susan C Shea said...

Thanks, Terry!

Paul D. Marks said...

They don't usually have much, if any, say in anything. They can try to offer input, but once you sell or option a script (or book) to Hollywood it's theirs, not yours. It's a little more complicated than I'm making out, but that's the gist. That's why you need to be careful about what rights you hold onto in your contract. But that's another post altogether.

And I agree with you about wanting to gell stories that go beyond murder.

Brenda Chapman said...

Some excellent insight and advice. The opening you chose does grab interest right away.