Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Opening Hook, Line and Paragraph

Openings can be either amazing, encompassing themes, plot, or simply functional and drive us straight into the action. Just started reading Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines which opens with:
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
How crazy is that? Straight into the action, but, more importantly, straight in there with the high-concept idea that cities are great big traction engines, many stories high, that feed on each other for resources.

I spend forever on my opening paragraphs, and still get them wrong. What follows are the six variations of the openings to my latest project, a YA fiction. As I have tried to find my voice, the style of the piece, where the best place to open is (start late, leave early, etc), and who I want to focus on, I have refined my choices of theme and the narrative concept itself... until I reached version 5. Then, of course, it required others to point out how slavishly I was devoting myself to a sustained bit of action between the protagonist and and a contagonist (check out Dramatica for more on that kind of talk) and really pouring over the pain felt in every limb and inch of the protagonist, with confusing bits aside, and irrelevant descriptions during the climactical moments of the scene.

What had I forgotten to do? Relate it back the protagonist! He may have been suffering but did the reader really connect with him and understand what the pain meant to him? The situation?

No. So, it led me to another rewrite (and I don't me a quick one-two). I rewrite a chapter whole and then edit all the bloody juices out of it until it's a fine sculpture - it's a shame that so many people point out that I've accidentally carved the face off and left both arms. Alas! My Venus!

Anyhoo. The final version opening leads straight to the protagonist and relates to the themes and story message directly...

Version 1
Libraries are many things to many people. The Babylonians used them almost four-thousand years ago to store astronomical charts and constellation maps. They hold all sorts of information; facts, stories, maps, and charts; the most stalwart truths and the greatest of lies.
Version 2
‘Put those down, child. Put those down and come with me,’ said Penthera Discordia with disarming charm.
Version 3
‘Listen to my voice. Relax, child. You must put down those books and accompany me.’ The command slithered through the humid air like a python through underbrush, carving a trail towards its intended victim. The words hissed hypnotically across the counter, eased into sleepy ears by the heat rising to the vaulted ceiling.
Version 4
… and the page shivers. A sliver of polished stone, the width and breadth of a man’s chest, floats up from the book and curls over. Paper thin. In the half light the movement is barely visible.
Version 5
Skull splintering pain. Pain, like the head of a cliff shearing away from a rock face. Its cry resounds off mountains and valleys with the skreee of shattering stone as it avalanches away.
Charles James Sanura had always been afraid of words. Growing up in the city had taught him how wicked they were, spoken to deceive and written to ensnare. One word, he had learned on the streets, was enough to provoke love or fear. Two, he knew from his school texts, could equally pardon or put to death. It required as little as three – and this he did not know – three words to change the fabric of the universe.
As you can probably tell... my mind won't select an opening scene and stick with it. We have an overview, two critical fight scenes (rewritten over and over), 1 scene with the central mcguffin, disassociated pain felt by the protagonist and then my current fave (though it is still hot off the press... so that could change any time soon).


esruel said...

Patience again, Rich!
They all look excellent.
Expand them all and see where they lead you. No need to discard any, and you may have the beginnings of chapters, around which you can weave your book.
Consider them separately, and then also as part of a whole. Reflecting, rather than selecting, may help you more. You have plenty of time to consider everything, to get it right, but in a short space of time you may ruin everything by trying to move too quickly.

R1X said...


The 1st is off the agenda - maybe give it as dialogue later.

The 2nd and 3rd are essential but will appear later as flashbacks

The 4th is now chapter 2 and the 5th has been amalgamated into chapter 1.

At the mo'it is the 6th that opens chapter 1 :)

Crowe said...

Very interesting. I rather like Version 4, though with openings it helps a bit if you also know what's coming next.

Would you mind if I blogged some further thoughts on openings later on today?

R1X said...

Thanks. The problem with version 4 though (and to some extent with version 5) was that the passage connected to an entire chapter in which there was no character present and it was just a description of this strange place - the oubliette of the obsidian tome - and there was no emotional hook for the reader.

It is still in there though - I never throw anything away forever.

And sure, go blog some more openings, it'll be good to hear your thoughts

Kate said...

I rather like 2, we're staight into the action with it, as well as a good hook. But I think 6 is proably better, I like the use of omniscient POV here.