I adore writing my opening chapters, so much so that I could easily spend a hundred pages writing the beginning rather than dive into the conflict. I love world building. I’d happily build churches and businesses and cottages and castles and people them with the inhabitants of my imagination if anyone would buy books like that. But for some odd reason, readers want characters to DO something, not just stand around engaging in witty banter and intelligent discourse inside my lovely crystal ball.
I have writing imps who fill my brain with lots of lovely scenery, then disappear into the trees to laugh and giggle while I struggle to figure out which scene to use where. Because I learn about story and character as I write, I usually dump tons of information into the opening that doesn’t need to be there. So once I’ve decided on an opening scene, I have to sit down and squeeze all my perambulations out of the verbiage until I reach the essence, then rebuild again to form the picture I want. Or throw it all out and start over, which I’ve done more often than I care to count.
But as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so does the idea of what is essential for an opening. I adore writers who can write great opening lines like: “Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail. You will have read, in TOM BROWN, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error. I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.” (George MacDonald Fraser, FLASHMAN) Doesn’t that give you an immediate picture of Flashman?
Or how about an immediate picture of story: “My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment....” (IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN by Sarah Dunant) If you don’t keep reading after that line, you must know the book already!
Openings like those are an art form and convey the voice of the book in hopes of catching the attention of readers who appreciate that particular style. Which is why EVIL GENIUS begins with the line: “My name is Ana, and I’m a doormat. I’m also one of the best virtual assistants in the world, if you’ll pardon my modesty.” Her conflict is her character! That’s so me.
What are some of your favorite opening lines?
Book View Cafe presents free excerpts of several of Patricia Rice’s novels (including Evil Genius) at her BVC Bookshelf.