Well begun …

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.

29 thoughts on “Well begun …

  1. Sara J. Henry

    Great post! In my writing I seem to be a fan of the Aha! opening chapter – one that both introduces the main character and plunges into the problem or action about to unfold.

    And, yep, I can quote my opening graf of my first novel, coming out next fall:

    If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.But I didn’t, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the other ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-size doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.

  2. Dana King

    I agree with, and do, the things you’ve mentioned here, though I have had to defend them from time to time. What I like best about the PI story is the laying out fo the casein the opening. Meeting the client in the first chapter, getting the detective’s impressions, and his perception of how he is received by the client, sets the whole book up for me.

    My favorite opening paragraph of my own? From a first person PI story, of course.

    I wore my good suit, the one that fit me when I didn’t carry a gun. I was calling on an old woman with money. That didn’t usually require a gun, even for me.

  3. Louise Ure

    Great post, Zoë. I think I use a sort of flash forward technique in my openings, something I like to call HIBK (Had I But Known). Take the opening lines of Liars Anonymous, which could have been ripped from the last three pages of the book:

    "I got away with murder once, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen again. Damn. This time I didn’t do it. Well, not all of it, anyway."

  4. karen from mentor

    I loved this post. It made me run right to the first page of two of my wip and see if they grabbed me.
    They are very different in tone.

    one begins:

    I like to go through life leaving a little sparkly trail of joy….like tinkerbell.

    The other:
    Josie lay face up on the massage table.

    A sheet tucked into the waistband of her panties shrouded her from pubic bone to toes; a towel hid her breasts.

    Stacy worked with firm smooth strokes unbunching the muscles and fascia of Josie’s abdomen and rib cage.

    Josie lay quietly, breathing deeply. They had been doing this for about a year now; once a month.

    Josie had stopped crying after the third time.

    As far as books go, I am a HUGE fan of Dashiel Hammet. He sets up a story like no one else.
    He has a story where he talks about the wind and how it makes men mad and women itch to kill that is just spine tingling from the opening sentence.

    Karen :0)

  5. Alli

    Ooooh, I like this post! Once again, the timing couldn’t be better. I’ve been messing around with my first para for a day now(not ALL day!) and your post has made me rethink things (still working on it). So, this is only the second draft, here’s the first para of my romantic thriller WIP:

    Bright sparks flared in front of her eyes as she sprinted from the dark depths of the cave, her panicked scream piercing the unnatural stillness of the Amazon. Fear consumed every part of her being as she clawed at her trekking pants and t-shirt in a desperate attempt to shed the terror that threatened to suffocate her. Finally breaking free of the darkness she ran head first into the dappled light of the fecund jungle, giant rubber leaves and thick vines smashed and whipped against her sensitive skin. As the events unfolded one thing consistently ran through her mind, it’s really hard to remain calm when undies are riding up my bum.

  6. Eika

    Love this post!

    Looking at my stories, I almost always start them off with something immediate: either dialogue or action. And, whichever comes first, the second one is there within a paragraph or two.

    I’m not one for description- my characters aren’t floating heads, but I can’t even tell you the hero’s or heroine’s hair color- so jumping straight into the story works well. One of my most recent beginnings was the end of the heroine’s argument with her parents. First hundred words got across her age, relationship with her family, the setting, and that they all have magic powers. Since I’ve completely screwed them over by word 2000, it fits with the pace.

  7. JT Ellison

    Great analysis, Z, and a brilliant new word. Love it.

    I usually start the story without giving background, or information. I want my story to start, rather than build to a start. That’s why I usually kill the prologues, because I find if I’m writing a prologue, I’m asking the reader to wait a few moments before I start the story. In some instances (and in more capable hands than mine) that technique works well. But I’m not good at it, so I usually start with a crime being committed, so we’re in media res, as it were. That way, there’s no bog down time trying to lay out back story, I just let it unfold where it needs to unfold. But it is tricky. Really, really tricky.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sara

    Glad you enjoyed the post, and you certainly take us straight to the heart of the action with that one. Don’t you find that first-person seems to do that, though? It has a certain intimacy and immediacy that seems easier to sustain than third-person.

    What’s the title of the book, by the way?

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Somehow, the classic PI structure always seems fresh and it works because it is the most logical place to start. It’s how you choose to handle it that makes it different.

    Like the opening lines – very Chandleresque!

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I’ve always loved the opening to LIARS ANONYMOUS, but I didn’t realise it related to something so far into the book. That makes me even more intrigued to read it …

    I’ve been accused of foreshadowing, but now I think about the proper definitions, I think I lean much more towards flash-forward. I don’t lay in cryptic clues in the hope you might not spot them, I just take a slightly out-of-context later scene and bring it forwards.

    In FOURTH DAY, the scene starts with Charlie locked up and alone in the dark, having had the crap kicked out of her. You’ll know from the jacket copy that she’s been sent to infiltrate a California cult, so it builds the question of how was she compromised, what has happened to her, and what WILL happen to her next.

    Or I hope it does, anyway …

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi James

    In a lot of cases, I think throwing out chapter one and starting with chapter two – or even later – is great advice. Sometimes you need to write those redundant early chapters as a way of finding your own way into the story – just as long as they don’t make the final cut ;-]

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    I love to watch movies and analyse the opening scenes, how much is said about the characters in so little space. It’s the ultimate in pared-down writing!

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen

    They are very different in tone, aren’t they? The opening about Josie, in particular, just sets up so many unanswered questions, and that’s what a good opening chapter is all about – asking questions the reader wants to find the answers to. Intriguing stuff.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eika

    Less is always more, I think, so I’m right with you there. I look upon description as like adding salt to cooking. A little goes a long way, and if you find you really haven’t got enough, you can always add a bit more. But too much and often the only thing you can do is chuck it all out and start again.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I love the way the Taylor Jackson books get straight into the heart of it, so whatever you’re doing, keep doing it ;-]

    It’s been suggested to me – particularly with the two books that started with flash-forwards – that I call these a prologue instead of chapter one, but that seems to separate them too much from the main body of the story. I think you’ve described it very nicely with the ‘asking the reader to wait a few moments’.

    On the other hand, I always do an epilogue, which might be better titled ‘aftermath’ because it’s where I go into the long-term consequences of the events of the book.

    But that is probably a topic for another day …

  16. R.J. Mangahas

    Great post, Z.

    Opening lines or chapters really can sometimes make a break a story. As a writer, I like to come up with an opening chapter (or even better an opening line) that really grabs the reader.

    I certainly hope that my opening line does that:
    "As Sophie Carmichael sat in her car and watched the proceedings at the cemetery across the street, she thought it a bit unnerving to be watching her own funeral."

    And of course I love learning a new word for the week. It helps build my skills as a…uh…vocabularian.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    I agree about the make or break importance of an opening chapter. It’s got to show the protagonist (or one of the protagonists, as fits) doing something that defines them, in thought, speech or action, otherwise it’s in danger of just being the adverts before the main feature.

    Congrats on finishing the first draft of your book, by the way. Big achievement and one to be celebrated ;-]

  18. Rob Gregory Browne

    A subject near and dear to my heart. I can’t start writing a book until I have that opening line. And if I start reading a book that doesn’t have a great opening line or, at the very least, a compelling opening paragraph, then I’m likely to put it down.

    Check any of the Parker thrillers by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) for some amazing opening lines.

    And I like that you caught the line switch in The Big Sleep. First time I saw it I laughed, because I knew the original line and thought they did a great job of compensating for Bogart’s lack of height. It works well either way. I think we have Leigh Brackett to thank for that one.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    Yeah, I like to have a good opening line before I move on, although I was looking for the elements that make up a great opening chapter here, rather than just an opening line.

    I watched ‘The Big Sleep’ again recently and it really stuck out that they switched that line about Bogart’s height. Especially as the actress who delivers it – Martha Vickers – was only 5ft 3.5in, so to her he WAS tall … ish.

  20. pari noskin taichert

    This is a wonderful post. You’ve given me a lot to think about. In the Sasha series, I got into the crime very quickly.

    In my new series, I set up the situation but don’t get into the crime until a little later. I like putting Darnda in context and giving the reader an interesting enough conflict from the beginning that the crime just pulls it forward even more.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Very interesting to know, when you write two distinct characters in two different series, that you tackle your opening chapters in different ways. Was this a conscious decision, or did Darnda just evolve in a different way to Sasha?


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