Thursday, January 14, 2016

On Openings


I used to struggle with openings. But since I’ve been writing a book a month for the past couple of years, since I’ve been mainly writing 40k word novels and self-publishing on Amazon, I don’t struggle with openings nearly as much as I used to.

I’ve figured out what I like. I like to open with action. Not just action, because a saddle tramp riding into town and having a look around could also be called action. I like violent action. Or at least swift action. Visual action.

Note, however, that I don’t mean action to the exclusion of some description and even some background information, or exposition. One element of fiction can hardly ever stand alone for long without making the writing one-dimensional. But generally I like openings that begin with high-stakes movement.

Here are the openings of my last two action-westerns, The Devil’s Bride and Fatal Woman (as by Frank Leslie), as well as my current book-in-progress, The Devil’s Fury, respectively:

As the stagecoach abruptly slowed, the driver bellowing profanely at his poor horses, Mathilda Anderson, formerly of St. Paul, Minnesota, flew forward off her stagecoach seat and nearly ended up in the lap of the burly gent sitting across from her.

The scream cut through the frigid mountain night like a razor-edged stiletto tearing through naked flesh.
It was a high-pitched wail crackling with stark human agony.
Clay Carmody dropped the load of firewood he’d been about to carry into the remote line shack, and jerked back with a curse...

There is nothing quite like the ratcheting snarl of a coiled diamondback to send fear into a man like a hot Apache war lance being driven into a barrel of warm lard.
Friends and relatives...if there are any relatives here...we have gathered here today at the invitation of Louis Hammond Maxwell Prophet and Mathilda Lenora Anderson to share in the joy of their wedding.
The sound is something akin to coarse sand being poured slowly out of a hollow gourd and the ratcheting click of a gun hammer being drawn back to full cock...

That last example looks a little weird, taken “out of context” as the cliché so favored by current sports heroes and politicians goes, but what I’m doing there is mixing violent action—a diamondback ready to strike our hero, Lou Prophet—with the vaguely remembered words of Prophet’s wedding ceremony, which was the start of a whole world of trouble for our trouble-plagued ex-Confederate bounty hunter.

As a reader I also like to start reading with violent or at least fast-moving visual action. I won’t not start reading a book that opens with dialogue or description as long as the dialogue and description don’t go on for too many paragraphs and I’m guessing the book will get better later on. Call me impatient, but I like to know what’s at stake from the start, and I like the thrill of movement. I think that opening a novel, especially an action-novel, which is what I write, is the best way to do that.

I think I probably learned early that I preferred action best from reading none other than good old Ernest Hemingway. Here are the openings of two of my favorite Hemingway short stories that begin with action. Not violent action, to be sure, but crisp, clean, visual movement that give a sense of the high-stakes ahead.

from “Cross-Country Snow”:

The funicular car bucked once more and then stopped. It could go no farther, the snow drifted solidly across the track. The gale scouring the exposed surface of the mountain had swept the snow surface into a wind-board crust. Nick, waxing his skis in the baggage car, pushed his boots into the toe irons and shut the clamp tight. He jumped from the car sideways onto the hard wind-board, made a jump turn and crouching and trailing his sticks slipped in a rush down the slope.

from "Indian Camp":

At the lake shore, there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.
 Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row. Uncle George sat in the stern of the camp rowboat. The young Indian shoved the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George.
The two boats started off in the dark...

No comments:

Post a Comment