Almost all of the Wenches have blogged on beginnings by now, and we’re largely in agreement on the broad points:
–A beginning needs to grab readers. Who among us hasn’t skimmed the first page of a possible purchase in the bookstore to see if we want to read this story?
–“Good beginnings” can vary greatly in tone and type. Ideally, it suits the story while drawing readers in.
–And for us writer types, sometimes we know exactly where a story starts, and sometimes—NOT! Starting a new book can open limitless vistas of possibility, or it can be a blank screen with a malevolently blinking cursor. Or both at different times.
I’m lucky in that generally I know where the story starts because that’s how it comes to me. That doesn’t mean the first pages won’t require fiddling to get Just Right. But it’s not too often that I write more than one opening scene.
Several of us Wenches were kicking around the Flashman books by George McDonald Fraser. I’m going to be blogging about them on 1/23 (advert! <g>), and it was mentioned that his openings were always good. So I pattered down to one of the walls of books in the basement and pulled out all my Flashmans. And they were all great. This from Flashman and the Redskins:
“I never did learn to speak Apache properly. Mind you, it ain’t easy, mainly because the red brutes seldom stand still long enough—and if you’ve any sense, you don’t either, or you’re liable to find yourself studying their system of vowel pronunciation (which is unique, by the way) while hanging head-down over a slow fire or riding for dear life across the Jornada del Meurto with them howling at your heels and trying to stick lances in your liver.”
Doesn’t Flashman’s voice come through like blazing trumpets? Woven in with historical detail and a foreshadowing of events that makes you want to keep reading? I could quote all the Flashman beginnings with equal impact.
I’ve never thought of myself as particularly great at openings, so I was tickled when Nina P. mentioned in a comment that she really liked the opening of Dancing on the Wind:
For the record, this is in a prologue, not Chapter 1. No matter, it’s what readers will see first. Personally, I adore prologues. I believe I even blogged on them once, so I won’t bore you beyond saying that to me, a prologue is a great, economical, real-time way to show vital information about what makes a character the way he is (it’s almost always a “he” for me. <g> ) Makes the character come alive quickly, should produce empathy, and saves flashbacks.
Though I’m not in the Flashman class, I looked at several of my books to see what I thought of the openings years after the writing–what I thought worked, or not. The Dancing on the Wind opening Nina mentioned looks pretty good. Here’s the opening of Shattered Rainbows.
This is grabby but misleading because the sentence is rather humorous and the book isn’t. Fortunately, the second sentence reveals the heroine to be in near hysterics so balance is restored, but there is some dissonance there.
The only Western set story I ever wrote was a novella called, “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know,” and it starts with one of my better lines:
“He was going to be hanged on Tuesday.”
I thought that sounded suitable gritty and Western, and it certainly fit the story.
This is a particular favorite of mine, from Silk and Shadows:
I don’t know if this was effective in a commercial sense because I’m told romance readers don’t like stories about revenge, but the book was absolutely about revenge and redemption, and the wanderer theme comes full circle in the last line of the book, so at least it was truth in advertising.
(Endings—now there’s a thought. Maybe someday we should do a Wenchly cycle on endings.)
“As a lad, Sir Kenrick of Rathbourne had thought that the life of a freelance knight would be a grand and glorious adventure. It wasn’t.”
I think that works because of the contradictions built in.
Most recent of all is A Distant Magic:
“The two foreign gentlemen strolling through Valleta’s market square looked like they had pockets worth picking.”
As I look at all these openings, I’m seeing some common themes. It’s good to have some emotion, preferably that draws us into a character. Interesting actions implied. Contradiction. Even a little shock value, as in the last, which puts us into the point of a view of a young pickpocket, or the story about being hanged.
Naturally, this got me to thinking about the WIP. I’ve never before put material from an unfinished book out in public, but as Jo says, “It’s never too late to make a first impression until the book’s in print.” Or at least, in production.
So tell me what you think about the beginning of the current Regency historical, which has had some tweaking already:
“Late night visitors were never good news. Lady Agnes Westerfield woke to banging on the door of her private wing of sprawling Westerfield Manor. Hoping to stop the racket before it woke her students, she slid into her slippers and wrapped herself in a warm robe, then used her night candle to light her way down the stairs. Soft, steady rain hissed against the windows, punctuated by three deep gongs from the hall clock.
Among the quiet hills of Kent, robbers were unlikely to knock on her front door, so she swung it open without qualms. Her heart sank when she saw the three tall young men on her front steps.
Randall, Kirkland, and Masterson had been part of her first class of students—her “lost lords” who needed special care and education. There had been six boys in that class, and they had become closer than brothers. One had been lost in the chaos of France, another was in Portugal. Having three of the others show up with anguish in their eyes did not bode well. “
So—does this draw you in? Don’t be afraid to tell me it doesn’t! There’s still time to change, which isn’t the case with the older books.
Personally I’ve always been rather fond of the atmospheric beginnings Edith mentioned, so I will admit freely that I once started a story with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” It was done rather tongue in cheek, of course. Can any of you say where I used this? If so, you become eligible for a book giveaway drawing, either for that book, or another paperback of which I have sufficient copies.
Mary Jo, writing from Maryland where it is indeed a dark and stormy night…