By Arnold Snyder
In working my way through the fiction slush pile at Vegas Lit (an imprint of Huntington Press), I began to notice that I was seeing essentially the same opening lines in every novel. The details were slightly different–one manuscript might open with Grandpa sitting on a rocker on the porch of his farm, while another opens with Grandma beating cookie batter in the kitchen of the farmhouse–but the underlying template is essentially the same.
I’m not saying that’s bad–all novels might be said to fit a kind of template in order to be novels in the first place, so it’s likely inevitable that the ways to open a novel are limited. What is bad is when the opening lines fit that template but don’t do anything new with it.
Another kind of problem arises when a writer is aware of the need to do something new, and so throws some kind of shocker into her opening that doesn’t really fit the rest of the book. For example, one manuscript I came upon recently opened with a startling sex scene that seemed to promise readers an interesting cruise into the Heart of Darkness of eroticism. The only problem was that, immediately after that sex scene, we were thrust (as it were) into a conversation between an entirely new bunch of characters, and who seemed to be talking about something related to espionage and a stash of gold hidden somewhere.
The stash-of-gold conversation wasn’t particularly interesting, so I started skimming, then flipping pages, looking for where the erotic novel would return. But there was no more erotic novel. It was all espionage to the end. The opening was false advertising.
What I learned from this manuscript was that if you need to resort to false advertising to lure people past the first page of your novel, there’s probably something wrong with your novel.
What are the three major templates for openings of novels?
1. The Introduction: “Call me Ishmael.”
In this type of opening, which does not have to be first-person, a strong character either wins your trust (Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) or seduces you into following him into an alternative universe of some captivating form of insanity (Humbert Humbert in Lolita).
If you go the insanity route, remember the “captivating” part–there has to be some aspect of the insanity that the reader immediately recognizes as part of his own psyche. What keeps you reading such a novel is the same thing that makes people rubberneck at an auto accident–a sense of dread, a sense of relief it’s not you, and the hope of averting such an outcome in your own life.
2. Action: “Santa Claus bounded through cheering throngs of elves and lifted the worn leather reins of his sleigh.”
This kind of opening propels you immediately into an event that, if done well, is interesting enough to keep you reading to see how it turns out. Out of the pile of manuscripts I’ve just read, there were half a dozen that opened with a James Bond kind of character climbing onto a yacht (or whatever) and administering an expert karate chop to the crewman he encountered there. One opened with a burglar being chased across rooftops, another with a perky blonde getting dressed for her date with the local church pastor, and still another with a child aiming some kind of ray gun at a menacing monster.
The problem with action openings for new writers is that almost no matter what you come up with, it’s already been done better in the movies. In addition, once the action sequence has come to a conclusion, you’re right back dealing with the problem of how to keep the reader interested.
3. The Setting: “A screaming comes across the sky.”
This is the opening that most writers seem to fall back on, and where they run into trouble is that most settings are not very interesting. Unless your character lives in a tent in the Sahara, his kitchen is probably pretty much like everyone else’s kitchen. So the writer tries to make up for that sameness with elaborate poetry in the description of that kitchen. James Joyce got away with a poetic description of a neighborhood to open his short story “Araby,” but only because he had a supernatural ability to create a sense of the strange within the routine. We stick with him because we want to see more of the world through his eyes.
The average writer, by contrast, either bores you with long delicate descriptions of his grandmother’s dressing table, or throws in some kind of oddball sci-fi setting that turns out to be a dream (more false advertising).
The trick is to get at the heart of why you wanted to write this novel, and start the novel there.
Arnold Snyder is the senior editor of Vegas Lit, a fiction imprint of Huntington Press in Las Vegas. Vegas Lit is seeking fiction book-length manuscripts for publication.
For submission guidelines, reviews of new novels, essays on writing, and more tips on getting your fiction manuscript published, see Arnold Snyder’s fiction blog, http://www.write-aholic.com.
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