by Zoë Sharp
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for a good opening line. It’s a question I usually ask a writer about their latest book and their answers are revealing, I think, ranging from a word-for-word quote, to a blasé “oh, I really can’t remember” as if they hadn’t slaved and sweated over it for days – or even weeks – to get it right.
When I did a post last year about opening lines, there were a few people who dismissed their importance, and I admit I’ve read a few that seemed to have been written purely to be memorable or shocking, rather than serving their true purpose. An opening line should grab you, yes, but then it has to deliver you into the right place in the story and hold you there.
So, now we come to the importance of opening chapters.
A book rarely, if ever, starts at the beginning of the story itself, and choosing the exact point at which you slide your reader into the tale is a very tricky one to judge.
In the classic private eye tale, of course, the book so often starts with the mysterious client walking into the PI’s office. The story has already begun, of course, or the client would not require the services of an investigator. This opening gambit serves several purposes. It allows the client to make telling comments about the hero’s appearance and character. “You look like you’ve been a prize-fighter.” Or “Captain John Doe down at the precinct gave me your name. He told me you were fired for insubordination.” The office may well be shabby, at which point the PI can point out that there isn’t much money in the business if you’re an honest man. All useful devices for getting across the flavour of the story and the character without labouring the point.
This also has the advantage of cutting straight to the heart of it. There will, after all, be a certain amount of detail contained on the book jacket, which is another reason why I usually write this bit first. It gives me a good idea of where to pitch the opening of my story. No point in having a big reveal about the identity of the hero’s love interest three-quarters of the way through the book, if the jacket copy declares, “He falls for a beautiful Russian double-agent!” or something similar. And I’ve seen this done recently more than once on books by very well-known authors.
Getting across your main protagonist’s character is key in the opening chapter – IF that’s where you introduce them into the story. In Lee Child’s ONE SHOT, for instance, Reacher doesn’t make his entrance until forty-five pages in. Nine books into a highly successful series, this works brilliantly to build up a sense of anticipation before the hero takes centre stage. Other characters mention his name, but have no clue who he is, and the reader feels in on the joke. With another writer, in a debut novel, that would not have worked so well.
Robert B Parker, in the opening chapter of NIGHT PASSAGE, introduces his ex-LAPD Homicide detective turned small-town police chief, Jesse Stone, in two simple pages that tell you he was a cop and he has a drink problem, as well as innumerable regrets about leaving behind his life in LA, not least of which involves a woman.
In Raymond Chandler’s classic THE BIG SLEEP, the opening chapter tells you a lot about private detective Philip Marlowe, by the snappy dialogue and the observations, although I note that in the film the exchange between Marlowe and Carmen Sternwood is altered from, “Tall aren’t you,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be.” to “Not very tall, are you?” “Well, I, uh, try to be.” possibly to take into account for the fact that Humphrey Bogart was only 5ft 8ins.
But I digress. The important thing is that the reader is given a real reason to read on, whether it be because of the set-up of the action, or from being hooked by the characters, and wanting to know what happens to them and their lives as the story progresses. Even with a series character, the writer has to bear in mind that people often come to the books out of order, so every time I start a new Charlie Fox book, I have to devise some method in the opening chapter for the reader to be shown the character without boring those who know her well.
Of course, what is not included in these opening chapters is a great deal of back story. Trying to cram too much back story about your characters into the opening of the book just gets in the way of the story, bogs it down and slows the overall pace. Plus you’re giving the reader information about people they haven’t come to care for. One agent I know says he often skips past the first three or four chapters of a new typescript because of this very problem, diving back in after the writer has settled down to just telling the story, rather than the story of how every character got to be here.
At the same time, I’m not a big fan of the cryptic prologue. It may work very well for other people to entice them into reading further, but I just find them irritating.
Other people, I know are against flash-forward opening chapters in a crime novel, but I admit to using it in SECOND SHOT, and again for the new book, FOURTH DAY. The definition of a flash-forward is an interjected scene that takes the narrative forwards from its current point. Although they can be projected, expected, or imagined, I have always tried very carefully to make sure that the opening chapters for both these books could be lifted from the start and slotted in between two later chapters, without alteration, and without cheating the reader at all. And these flash-forward openers are not taken from near the end of the book, either, although you can always spot the reviewers who didn’t read it all by the fact that they still assume this to be the case …
A flash-forward opener is different from a foreshadowing opener, which only hints at what might be to come, and is a technique used by writers to provide clues for the reader to be able to predict what might occur later in the story. An example of this is to describe a scene which includes an item later vital to the outcome of the plot, or the identity of the culprit, and often seems to be hidden among the contents of the dead man’s pockets, or the items arrayed across a desk, and is much beloved of Golden Age detective novels.
So, in my opening chapter, regardless of the book, I know I need to introduce my protagonist in such a way as defines their character and their relationship with those around them, jump into the heart of the story, hook old and new readers alike, and set the pace and tone for the rest of the book.
Simple really, isn’t it?
Do you have a particular technique you use for opening chapters? Do you have any pet hates or favourites as a writer or a reader? Which opening chapters of the ones you’ve written or read do you like best, and why?
This week’s Word of the Week is prolepsis, from the Ancient Greek meaning to anticipate. It’s often a figure of speech in which a future event is referred to in anticipation (as in calling a character ‘the dead man’ before he’s actually dead) or in which objections are anticipated and answered (as in “‘Ah,’ you might say, ‘but that is impossible!’ Not so, because …” although correctly this is called procatalepsis.