I’ve been thinking a lot about craft lately. I finished up one project and always feel a little nervy about starting another and not screwing up. During drafting and revision I sink into tunnel vision, but this is a different beast entirely, this squiggly, in between space. So last Friday night, I dragged Beginnings, Middles, & Ends off my bookshelf, then, at Nancy Kress’ instruction, grabbed the nearest anthology–Human for a Day, which I hadn’t cracked open yet–and read the first lines of every single story. The four stories with the most foreshadow-y opening lines were by Seanan McGuire, Tanith Lee, David D. Levine, and Jim C. Hines. I went on the read the first three paragraphs of these stories. If the goal of openings is to establish an individual character, hint at conflict, and give specific details, most of these stories did two things really well. My favorite was “The Dog-Catcher’s Song” by Tanith Lee, which goes like this:
They were playing it on the radio, that first time I saw him.
He was by the highway. Just sitting there, and the sun was going west, shining back on him so he glowed like gold. He was a kind of crossbreed, I guess, biggish built but lean, and his coat real good. I like animals. Always have. They can sometimes reach me where a human can’t. That’s wrong, maybe. Or maybe it ain’t.
Now don’t think I just pull over and run up to any animal I see. I know about rabies, even with the shots, and this was pretty wild, lonely country I was driving through; those long plains and mountains combed up on the backdrop, and maybe one thirsty tree per mile. But he had a collar and he looked in real good shape. Only thing was the way he just sat there.
So I pull up and roll down the window. I say to him, “Hey, boy, how y’doing? You okay there?”
He turned his head and looked right at me. He had one of those long noses. He had white teeth–no suspicion-making froth or nothing. And his eyes. Black. Great big eyes. I never saw eyes, any eyes, so damn sad.” ~ from “The Dog-Catcher’s Song” by Tanith Lee
I cheated and let myself count the first five paragraphs, in which case this opening scene has it all: character, details, and a hint of conflict at the end. Also, credibility of prose.
Next I studied the openings of three novels I admire, staring with Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. The first scene has interesting details and a wry sense of humor. John Perry is visiting his wife’s grave. The neighboring plot is occupied by a woman “whose rather oversized headstone is polished black granite, with Sandy’s high school photo and some maudlin quote from Keats about the death of youth and beauty sandblasted into the front.” And John reflects on his wife’s death with “I hate that her last words were ‘Where the hell did I put the vanilla.’” John Perry is saying goodbye. But by the end of the first scene we don’t know all that much about him. In fact we know more about his wife, and her strategies for smoothing over bake-sale cold wars by preemptively buying pies from the competition. Where this opening shines is on the strength of its very effective first line, which directly relates to the conflict of the book and is moreover a promise to the reader that, despite the Midwestern feel, this is a work of genre fiction:
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
By contrast, the opening of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is more subtle, and after all it’s literary fiction where OMW is space opera/military SF. What I adore about this opening is how the narrator is so finely drawn. Midway down the first paragraph, we get this:
It seems peculiar to me now that I should have been so obedient well into my teens, while the rest of my generation was experimenting with drugs and protesting the imperialist war in Vietnam, but I had been raised in a world so sheltered that it makes my adult life in academia look positively adventurous.”
Soon after, the conflict is laid out in a mysterious letter addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” Neither the first nor last lines are remarkable, but the sum of the scene is very strong, highly atmospheric and again, directly sets the stage for the novel.
Crap–I almost forgot! The Historian actually has two openings, including the fictional, prologue-ish “A Note to the Reader,” which is downright chilling and I can’t not excerpt here.
The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper. Recently, however, a shock of sorts has prompted me to look back over the most troubling episodes of my life and of the lives of the several people I loved best. This is the story of how as a girl of sixteen I went in search of my father and his past, and of how he went in search of his beloved mentor and his mentor’s own history, and of how we all found ourselves on one of the darkest pathways into history. It is the story of who survived that search and who did not, and why. As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw.”
Lastly, Sunshine, an urban fantasy by Robin McKinley, takes a different tack entirely. Most of the rather long opening scene is a rambling passage about our baker protagonist whose life revolves around the family coffeehouse in seedy Old Town where you can hear the cockroaches “clicking when they canter across the cobblestones outside.” Robin McKinley’s voice is very distinctive and I’m sure I could pick her out in a blind test. I grew up on her books. I almost think my brain is hard-wired to enjoy her fiction. Though I’m not sure this opening is all that strong, or if it survives on voice and confidence in the author. Could a new writer get away with it? Maybe not. But amongst the sprawling scene-setting McKinley drops bombs of otherworldiness that jerk you to attention and keep you wanting to turn pages. And I also caught a line that’s meaningless until you’ve read the entire story, but is so great when you know where it’s going. I wonder if that’s why this book survives so well on rereads. Anyway, here are the first and last lines of the opening scene:
It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years.” … “I never heard them coming. Of course you don’t, when they’re vampires.”
So what have a learned from my self-imposed homework? Old Man’s War has a wow factor. The Historian takes my breath away and I want to read it again right now. If you’re not going to be punch-y, try slowly creepy instead. As with the short stories, most of the novels focus on two of the three ingredients to a good opening: character, conflict, and/or details. And as I’m typing this blog post, I realize my personal preference gravitates toward character and conflict. Those stories resonate with me the most.
Also, I would have included The Sparrow in this post, because it is beautiful, but I loaned it out to a friend. D’oh.
I may try to revisit the opening of a story I’ve written and post a teaser next week!