Put That Banjo Down

A cautionary tale of banjos and moreThere have been numerous WU posts about how we begin our books, but I think the topic is worthy of repeated exploration, because beginnings are crucial. Your book’s beginning is the first impression you make on your readers, and you’ve got a very limited time in which to try to make that a good impression.

In fact, beginnings are SO crucial that it’s easy to get psyched out by them – I know I do. I can get so caught up in my concern over writing the absolutely perfect opening that I end up writing nothing at all. And that’s not good.

Last fall, guest poster Kristyn Kusek Lewis offered an excellent tactic for overcoming The Dreaded Page 1 Psyche-Out, which you can read here – it’s the second of the five steps she offers for conquering writer’s block. This sounds like an excellent approach for anybody facing the daunting challenge of a WNQYIP (work not quite yet in progress).

Maybe you’re trying too hard

It’s also easy to simply try too hard with our beginnings. So I thought I’d point out a few common missteps I’ve seen writers make. Caveat: as my friend Jael McHenry wisely pointed out in this excellent post, there are no rules. But if your opening passage sounds a lot like what I describe below, you should make sure you REALLY want to start your book that way, and should have compelling reasons for doing so.

Come and listen to my story ‘bout a man named Jed…

This is a common type of authorial throat-clearing, where the narrator essentially tells the reader to pull up a chair and get ready for the totally awesome tale he or she is about to tell. This is often accompanied with a certain self-satisfied “I know something you don’t know” attitude, which can be off-putting. But here’s the bigger problem: it’s not story; it’s talking about the story. Which means the reader is still waiting to get to the damn story.

While not always delivered in a folksy tone, this approach inevitably reminds me (steeped as I am in The Classics) of the opening theme to The Beverly Hillbillies. While this can be a nice opportunity to show off the narrative voice you’ve adopted, unless there’s something truly essential to the story in this monologue, you might want to put that banjo down, and move on to where stuff starts to actually happen.

Well, let’s see: First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died, and they turned into oil…

Those with the same deep cultural awareness as myself will recognize this quote from the movie Airplane II, when Lloyd Bridges asks that hilariously obnoxious Air Traffic Controller to brief him on “absolutely everything that’s happened up ‘til now.”

Obviously that wasn’t the answer Lloyd was looking for. But I’ve seen countless manuscripts start out like this. I’m talking about the dreaded info dump, where the opening pages serve only to provide backstory. The argument authors invariably use to defend this approach is that we simply MUST know this stuff to understand who these characters truly are and why they are behaving in this manner.

Um, no – we don’t.

The argument authors invariably use to defend this approach is that we simply MUST know this stuff to understand who these characters truly are and why they are behaving in this manner.

Um, no – we don’t.

Think about it: when you first meet somebody, she doesn’t tell you her entire life story. (If she does, the natural inclination is to run like hell in the other direction.) No, we get to know people gradually. Sure, we make snap judgments based on first impressions, but then we revise those judgments as we get to know them better.

Folks, what works in real life works just fine in fiction. In fact, it can actually enhance your fiction, by augmenting the surprises and new dimensions your characters reveal as your story progresses.

In medias WTF?

In contrast to the dreaded info dump, sometimes writers go too far in the other direction. They’ll attempt an in medias res opening (Latin for “into the midst of things”) that plops the reader in the middle of some situation. That’s all well and good, but sometimes they provide so little context that the reader has no freaking clue what’s going on.

The most common offense is the dialog-only opening, where all we see is line after line of dialog, with nothing to suggest who the people speaking are, where they are, etc. After four or five lines of this, most readers will begin to check out, because they simply don’t have enough to connect with. To clarify: done well, an in media res opening can be very effective, but you gotta throw the reader a bone, so they have at least some idea what is happening.

As an alternative, you can use this approach to fool the reader, purposely using dialog and action that suggest one thing, but turn out to mean something else entirely. For example, in the 2009 movie Star Trek, the action-packed opening scene initially led us to believe we were getting our first glimpse of a young James Kirk, who was being played for the first time ever by an actor other than William Shatner. But the man we were seeing was actually Kirk’s father, whose heroic death would happen moments after the baby James was born. That was a great way of both faking us out and providing backstory, all while pulling us in with some breathtaking action. Well played, J.J. Abrams. Well played.

Killer robot zombie shark attack – with lasers!

Convinced by reading all the how-to’s and blogs that advise writers to “open with action,” some writers push the envelope a bit too hard, opening with action SO extreme that you expect to see James Bond and Bruce Willis come rappelling down from helicopters to fight tiger-riding ninjas armed with photon torpedo launchers (which are only legal in the state of Texas at the time of this writing), just before the Robot Vampire King arrives in a Humvee driven by Sylvester Stallone, firing heat-seeking missiles that turn into robot sharks when they hit the water, and… well, you get the idea.

Don’t use your opening as a fishing lure. Use it to set the tone, and then maintain and build on that tone.

Again, action is great. But if this is more action than will occur anywhere else in your book, you’re making a promise to the reader on which the rest of the book will not deliver. Don’t use your opening as a fishing lure. Use it to set the tone, and then maintain and build on that tone. If that includes robot zombie sharks, that’s fine. Just make sure those sharks have somewhere to go in terms of story arc.

Give your shark an arc – whoa, that rhymes!

Hey-look-at-ME writing

An extremely common misstep new writers make in their opening scenes is to spend the first few pages proving to the reader that yes, they do own a thesaurus. They fill paragraph after paragraph with lushly descriptive prose, hoping to dazzle readers with their vocabulary and eye for detail. I call this “hey-look-at-ME” writing, where the prose calls attention to itself, but not to the actual story.

Some new writers spend the first few pages proving to the reader that yes, they do own a thesaurus.

Telltale signs include the extensive use of overblown words and phrases, such as the odious “verdant” and other words that people almost never say in the course of actual human conversation. (See more on my hatred of the dreaded V-word here.) Sometimes it even seems like these writers must be using some sort of checklist, making sure they hit on all fives senses within the first paragraph. The result is something that looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells like what it is: showing off.

Don’t get me wrong. Descriptive writing can be wonderful to read, and highly effective. But if it doesn’t drive the story forward and introduce some conflict – particularly on the opening page – it’s a very risky move.

Rules, exceptions, and sharks without banjos

Again, there are always exceptions. I’m sure you can come up with examples of successful books that start with each of the approaches I’ve just warned you against using. But I’ll bet that each of those books also does so in some extraordinary way – that, or those books simply got better after a questionable opening, much like a sports team can rally after a bad first period of play.

If you’ve got a good reason for the approach you’re taking, and – most importantly – it actually works, then go for it.

As with anything else in writing, if you’ve got a good reason for the approach you’re taking, and – most importantly – it actually works, then go for it. Bring on those laser-toting sharks, and give us their full backstories. But could you do me a favor, and at least lose the banjo?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are some other opening approaches that make you groan? Conversely, what are some books in which a potentially clichéd opening actually works? I look forward to your feedback, and as always, thanks for reading!

 

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com.

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    I actually don’t like to be misled in the first page or two. Just get into the story. Don’t try to tell me everything right away either!

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  2. says

    I belong to a large writer’s group with many young people. Young people like to open their works with lots of action and violence and tons of supernatural/preternatural/special powers stuff. They also like to show off their use of their mother tongue. It would not be strange to find many stories that use the word “verdant” to describe a landscape so that two or three paragraphs later, they can sear it, blacken it, waste it, lay waste to it or incinerate it in a war, an invasion or the rising up of angry creatures which had lain undisturbed beneath the verdant landscape. Sometimes the havoc is wrought with the powers/technology of their sympathetically damaged characters (who are still physically attractive.) There will be lots of sardonic, cryptic dialog and we will soon find out that the characters are not as stupid as they sound, that they are actually … brilliant! All this in the first five pages.

    To their credit, these young authors do keep their promises – they are relentless in their use of violence and in killing off characters or submitting main characters to unsurvivable injuries which the character survives. Special powers, y’know. It would be a relief if one of these budding authors did pick up a banjo.

    I am one of the oldest members of the group and I am an infodumper and a banjo player. I have stuff bookmarked as “research” for my book that I am always trying to put into the story, and the young people are always telling me not to do this, especially at the beginning. They say things to me like, “Who cares if Africa created the Berkshires billions of years ago?” And you know what? They are right.

    P.S. A lot of my young friends are wonderful writers, killer robot zombie shark attack-with LASERS and Hey-Look-at-ME stuff aside.

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  3. says

    A fun post chock full of verisimilitude, Keith. (How was that for subtlety?) One thought I’d offer is that beginning ‘action’ that ensnares interest need not be physical or violent action. Any angst-inducing action may suffice as in, say, a boardroom confrontation or boiling social conflict.

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  4. says

    My stories, although fiction, are based from real events and therefore ring more true. As for the banjo. I play one. I write songs. And the banjo can lend itself to more unique lyrics and song starts than most of pop music. But I know you’re just using it as a metaphor.

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    • says

      Dan, thanks for understanding the banjo thing is a metaphor. But I’d like to caution you that just because a story may be based on fact does NOT automatically guarantee it will ring more true. That’s a challenge that fact-based fiction writers face: they can get caught up in thinking “but it really happened!” to defend everything they’ve written, rather than asking themselves the hard question of whether they have executed a successful and compelling piece of storytelling.

      If anything, it can be harder for these authors, because they have to try to remain objective, keeping in mind that their readers do not share the same background knowledge and experience that the author has, and may not automatically believe what they’re reading, even if it is true.

      Bottom line: storytelling that rings true comes from the *writing* – not from the reality that may have inspired that writing.

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      • says

        This is so true, Keith! I struggled with this while writing The Glass Wives. Based on a nugget of fact, in the beginning I was really attached to what really happened. And, what really happened was sometimes BORING. (OH NO)

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  5. says

    Dang, I was almost done with the expository theme-song for my historical fantasy, based on the theme from Green Acres, sung between my male and female protagonists. Him: “The swords!” Her: “The fjords!” Oh well, back to the drawing board, sans banjo.

    The series I’m reading right now is a true epic, starting with the childhood of the first-person protagonist, as far back as he can recall. It unspools slowly, but the author managed to keep me riveted. It was written in the mid-90s, and very skillfully done, but I found myself wondering if she’d have gotten away with it in today’s marketplace, with the “Squirrel!” attention-span, screen-zombie generation of readers.

    Wonderful list, Keith.

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  6. Lisa Threadgill says

    Thanks for a great morning laugh. I think you hit all the openings I find irritating, though the show-offy “Look at me! Look how LITERARY I am!” really makes me bug-nuts. If I can see the work, then for me the writing has failed.

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  7. says

    These are good things for me to keep in mind as I work on a new project… a new project that is the sequel to my previous-trying-to-get-an-agent project. I realized I was trying to make too much of a bridge of events between novel 1 and novel 2 instead of setting the tone for 2 with a specific scene and making it its own story. The “bridge of events” instead of dragging out the beginning of my novel, can be sprinkled in later as details rather than essential scenes.

    As always thanks for a thoughtful post!

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  8. says

    Not a fan of prologues that are told from the POV of other characters that we will meet on page 267. Or the “she would realize, later, that this was one of the most significant decisions of her life, but at the time…” No! Please, no.

    And yes, the senses are important, but they can be overdone. Not every character needs to be tuned in to all five senses, ALL the time.

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  9. says

    “… when you first meet somebody, she doesn’t tell you her entire life story. (If she does, the natural inclination is to run like hell in the other direction.) No, we get to know people gradually.”

    So spot on, as is the rest of this post. Thanks for being informative without being preachy. I learned a lot and laughed in the process. Great post.

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  10. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Keith, thank you.

    I always write my first chapter last. Right from minute one I know what the first chapter is meant to say, but I don’t structure it until I’ve written at least the first draft of the entire MS.
    It isn’t until I’ve been drowning in these characters for endless months/years, chapters, that I truly know them. It isn’t until I’ve been toiling over details for so long my eyes gloss over that I am really able to get right to the point without dawdling. And, lets face it, my writing is always stronger by the end of a book.

    I’m printing your post for when I’m ready to write the first chapter of my current WIP. No sharks! :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  11. says

    I’ve been told to avoid dreams(Rebecca) and mirrors(Snow White) for beginnings. Both WIPs I’m working on have both. Now I’m whistling the Andy Griffith Show theme song.

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    • says

      Good catch, Mary Jo – both of those are devices that have been done to death, making it very hard to use them in a way that’s fresh and effective.

      Another one – a variation of the dream opening – is to start with the protagonist waking up in the morning. While that may be a great way to start a blues song, it’s been overdone as a way to open a novel, so I’d only use it if I had a VERY good reason.

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  12. says

    Here I sit taking a break from yet another first start on my next novel when I read this excellent post. Gadzooks, my banjo is out of tune. Foggy Mountain Breakdown is no way to start the next War and Peace. So thanks, I think. Now back to Word and File-New-Blank document.

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  13. says

    Excellent descriptions of some of the opening pages I see all the time for critiques on my blog (Flogging the Quill). I’ll be sending my readers here for sure. Thanks.

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  14. says

    I let loose a full-fledged guffaw with “Give your shark an arc – whoa, that rhymes!” Thanks for that.

    Re: openings that shouldn’t have worked but did…
    Michael Gruber has a risky opening in his novel The Forgery of Venus. He begins with a quote. I don’t mean he uses a quote to set off a section, the way authors often do, but he uses a quote that is then immediately referenced by the main character. It’s a big, fat thing too — two graphs from Don Quixote. But the whole thing works for me. Maybe because I knew the quote had to be significant, and that it held secrets to the story, and I’d have to read on to figure all of that out.

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  15. says

    Another keeper for the bulletin board above my writing area. Thanks for the reminders and for the link to Kristyn Kusek Lewis’s post. I’d missed that one!

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  16. says

    Thank you for this helpful article.
    You asked: What are some other opening approaches that make you groan?
    My answer: Introducing a large cast of characters each with unpronounceable names.

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    • says

      Thanks, Leanne – that bugs me, too.

      A variation on that issue is when A) several characters’s names are very similar, or B) the author uses several different variations of the same character’s name (or nickname) all within the first page, and assumes that we’ll figure out it’s all the same character.

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  17. says

    Very fun — and very true. I’ve seen way too many info-dump openings. I also hate to see an opening that’s technically proficient (it’s anchored, it’s not info-dumping, it’s not a “volcano” of action that guarantees everything after it is a let down) but at the same time, I don’t get a hook or any sense of why I care about the characters. I like to have my curiosity piqued, or at least get a sense of engagement with the POV character.

    Will definitely share this post!

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  18. says

    As an editor, I commonly see manuscripts where the author opens with their climatic scene, then throws on the brakes, goes back to the very beginning, works up to the same climax, and repeats it word for word. It’s all downhill from there. Opening with a climax can work — for a masterful example, read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. But used “just because” the author wanted to open with a bang, it usually falls flat, because the characters need to earn that climax, and the reader needs to be invested. And folks, if you do it, please: on the second pass come at it from a different angle.

    As a writer (quick switch of hats), I’m liking this: “Don’t use your opening as a fishing lure. Use it to set the tone, and then maintain and build on that tone.” Yes!

    And as a culture maven of a certain age, hey, reconsider the power of “Come and listen to my story ‘bout a man named Jed…” It absolutely sets the tone, in just a handful of lines. It prepares the stage for what might otherwise be a WTF story premise. And it rhymes — there are many (many, many) of us who could sing it in our sleep. If that’s not a successful opening, what is? Ladies and gents, you could do worse than pick up a banjo.

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    • says

      Thanks, Mary.

      Another brilliant open-with-the-climax book is Water for Elephants, in which Sara Gruen manages to completely fake us out as to who is committing the murder we’re witnessing.

      When she finally circles back to that scene, we as the readers have been changed by her story, and thus we see this killing in a completely different light.

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    • says

      PS – I love the theme from the Beverly Hillbillies, for all the reasons you described. Ditto for the theme from Gilligan’s Island. :)

      But I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts from inexperienced writers that waste the first few pages trying to get the reader ready to listen to a story. I think they’re ready the second they open the book, and it’s dangerous to make them wait too long.

      Again, there are always exceptions. For example, I love the opening page of Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys,” which starts out with several paragraphs that read like the recitation of some ancient myth before getting to the actual protagonist and his real-world problems. It’s utterly charming, and sets a perfect tone for the delightful read that lies ahead.

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  19. says

    This post is not fun at all. Well, maybe the post and the comments are fun, but the subject is HUGE – Terrifyingly Huge. I’ve heard that editors/agents/publishers will quit reading a ms after the third paragraph if it’s not grabbing them. That thought makes me break out in a sweat. I’m an info dumper so I write the first chapter and then delete the first three or four or five paragraphs. That’s better. :)

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    • says

      You’re not alone, Phyllis.

      I’m more of a throat-clearer than an info-dumper, but the result is the same: I usually have to delete the first paragraphs (or pages) to uncover where my story should REALLY begin.

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  20. Liz Tully says

    I’m not a fan of the verdant opening. Annie LaMott was recommended to me and I chose “Blue Shoe” to read. By the end of her second paragraph (or was it still the first paragraph?) I was laughing at her description of the fall leaves outside the window.

    Then I remembered she is a ‘serious writer’ and I stopped laughing. I still didn’t like it, and felt chagrined.

    I found the “trees giddy with color” distracting, in all their burnt umber magnificence.

    I think part of it is impatience. Get to the story already. This is one of the reasons I like Sci/Fi and Mystery.

    Right now I am reading Marker, by Robin Cook. I have to admit that there is some ‘overwriting there’ with all the ‘wry smiles’ and saying things ‘vehemently, sincerely, tersely’ and otherwise, but I can’t put the book down.

    I guess there’s no accounting for taste. =)

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    • says

      I’m with you, Liz. While I LOVED Lamott’s advice on how to write fiction in her brilliant “Bird by Bird,” I’ve had a hard time connecting with her actual novels.

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  21. A M Perkins says

    …I can’t be the only one who now wants to see a story with tiger-riding ninjas and heat-seeking missiles that turn into robot sharks.

    Someone make it happen! :-)

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  22. says

    This post is both funny and wise, Keith. But now I have a yearning to write about a wise-cracking shark who must learn to show his tender side. What’s most disturbing is that I’m not joking…

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  23. Hilary says

    Two of the things that would put me off reading a novel if they happen at the very beginning, and it’s surprising how common they are, so can I issue a warning about them?, are:

    – protagonist stops what they’re doing and lights a cigarette, usually in the first sentence. Instant turn-off for any non-smoker.

    – protagonist (usually but not always female) stands in front of their wardrobe dithering over what to wear for some important event. Can we take it for granted that everyone thinks at least a bit over clothes for important events, and just cut to the action?

    Even worse, protagonist breaks off agonizing about what to wear, steps back and lights up, all in the first sentence – augh!!

    Why are these SO common in bad fiction?

    For some reason the other big big turnoff for me is any occurrence of incontinence in the first page – also surprisingly common. This is why I have never read “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” or “Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha” despite their reputations.

    In comparison, I’d be quite interested in a banjo and a man named Jed.

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  24. says

    It’s not possible to have an opening line the way the old and great books did it, probably because the market is so congested. Now you have to start your book in some kind of conflict. But you’re right in saying don’t overdo it. And the conflict does not have to be pure action like your killer robot zombie shark attack point. I guess you have to balance it.

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    • Liz Tully says

      I love re-reading the first few pages of “1984”, not a line of dialog in sight and you can practically smell the cabbage , as Winston Smith shows his story world in vivid grey and white. Too bad we can’t write them like that anymore!

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