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.

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.