Saturday, March 20, 2010
We've heard much ado about opening chapters with action. It's among the most hackneyed expressions of writing advice. While action is important, it accounts for only one facet of the dynamic opening. Other fragments of a great opening are: mood, pace, tension and conflict. The makings of such an opening is well within the spirit of every serious writer. I hope to help you to explore what you already have. So, let's dust off that jewel within yourself, polish it and create memorable openings.
Here are the components to great openings: Fear, Dialog, Conflict and Scene.
Let's start by exploiting the most basic human emotion: fear. For the sake of memory, I use the following acronym to describe those fears, L. Podic. L-P-O-D-I-C, which stands for the fear of: Loss, Poverty, Old age, Death, Illness and most of all Criticism.
Exploit one or more fears in the context of conflict.
"Conflict!" is a superior dynamic toward the great opening. Conflict builds tension, sets the mood and allows the demonstration of character development. In other words, you won't have to tell the reader. You can show them through a given conflict. The reader will become lost in the story as each character responds to conflict. So, there's number one: conflict.
So, forget about action. Conflict stimulates action. Conflict speaks to the reader through language, choice of words, the attitude of the character and encourage the reader to desire a particular action.
How to create conflict? I knew you would ask. Here's how. Here are a few techinques. First, ask yourself, who do you know who cannot seem to answer a simple question without filling you in on all the unncecssary details? Who? Write that individual's name down.
What would he or she say if there were an accident? How would this person respond to a broken arm, or, a broken relationship? Is this person very dramatic? If so, start a scene with the idea that something has gone wrong and a character (not unlike the reader) is trying to discover the nature of the problem, but big mouth is telling all the details that led up to the problem, leaving us on the edge of our seats in anticipation of what actually happened. Make the reader want to shake the speaker until she spits it out.
This technique creates tension. I've created an example below, but first, let's explore additional techniques toward creating conflict and tension.
How? Ask yourself, what is your pet peeve? Write it down. Let's say you can't tolerate second hand cigarette smoke. Now, let's say you have legitimate reason to be in a room with a chain smoker. He is unreasonable and does not consider those around him. Let's say the last will and testament will be read in this room. You are rumored to be the principal heir to this fortune. The chain smoker, Uncle Buck is the executor of the will and primary witness to the intentions of the deceased.
So, Uncle Buck lights up.
Number 2, Dialoge.
Allow the dialoge to pull the reader smack into the story before they know it. To do so, successfully, think "scene." It does not matter whether you're writing a scene. It does matter that your mentality is that of a scene taking place.
Earlier, I alluded to a scene of a loquacious individual who cannot get to the point when asked a simple questions. I think of my niece who is the ultimate drama queen. She would not say, " The child stepped on a nail," when she can say, "An ambulance came. They took Johnny. We don't know that it were poisonous, but rumor has it that, in some cases, gaingrene sets in and they have to amputate. In some cases."
Here's an example of an opening filled with conflict and tension. See if you can determine which of the basic fears are involved in the conflict.
"They're laying off eighty six workers next month," he said.
His wife caught the coffee cup that fell from her hand and nearly onto the graphite counter top. A coffee maker whistled as steam rose beneath the hood of the oven.
His wife studied the blue gray smoke as if his words had gathered there: HE'S LOOSING HIS JOB.
Her back yet turned to him, she neatly folded her note -- the one she spent two days itemizing living expenses and past due bills on paper. She folded the paper into even smaller quarters and clenched it in her fist before hiding it within her bosom.
"...cutting back in every department and every category except the fat cats get to stay on. In fact, the top three executives received a big bonus," he said.
A mortgage. Two car notes. Insurance. Three kids and another on the way. One in college. Tuition. Books.
"...and was going to try to get on at the BMW plant, but their first choice of candidates for the three jobs will be among the fifteen hundred people they laid off last year."
Three. Only three jobs. Credit card balances.
"Honey? The coffees ready," he said.
Her mind faded into a world of whistles, steam and bills.
Now, see if you can indentify the fears invloved in the above scene.
Below is antoher example.
The two of them sat at a booth. Jenny shuffled in her seat, fumbled with the handle of a coffee mug and bit her nails. Periodically, she looked up toward the door. She even noticed all movements and comings and goings in the nearby parking lot.
He sipped from his own cup and noticed the way she played with her eggs and bacon.
She answered her cell phone. "...umhmm. Here at the Waffle House. The one on Rockbridge Road. Uhmm. He's here. Okay. (laughter). Cool, girl. Bye."
"That was short. Who was that?" he asked.
"A girl friend," she said.
She shifted in her seat and began biting her nails, again.
"Are you sure there's nothing going on between you and Cindy?" She asked.
"Who said that? Who told you something like that?"
"Are you seeing her?"
"Cindy? Me--" he pointed to his chest --" and Cindy? "
She shoved her meal aside, toyed through her purse and then removed a small mirror and applied lipstick.
"When was the last time you saw her?"
She rubbed her lips together and turned her head aside until her dangling ear ring shown in her compact mirror.
"What--two weeks ago?" he said.
"Not last night?"
He hesitated. "No."
"Not at Barleys in the parking lot last night?"
"Why would someone lie about that?"
"I dunno. You can ask Emmet. Last night I was with him."
She looked up...toward the door. The lady marching through the door had business on her mind. She stood erect with a heavy purse strapped to her left shoulder. Her right hand stuffed inside the purse, she said something to the cashier who pointed toward the table where they sat.
The cashier rushed behind the kitchen door and beckoned the waiters to join her.