If you didn’t get enough of Miss Snark’s Crapometer a couple of weeks ago, Rachel Vater is doing queries and first pages on her blog this week. I gotta tell you, these blogging agents and editors out there have really REALLY opened my eyes. There is nothing in this world like seeing for yourself just how boring slush can be. Doesn’t mean the author can’t fix it, btw, just means that it seems like Jung’s collective unconscious is alive and well in the storytelling world. We all begin with beginnings: waking up in the morning, driving a car, looking in the mirror, relating the character’s boring old backstory before the action begins. It’s natural to begin at the beginning, though no less a personage than Aristotle himself told us to begin in media res. That was over a millenia ago, btw.

So why do we still start at the beginning? I guess it’s habit. I solved the backstory issue in the current WIP by including a short newspaper article on the first page that told what had happened to the heroine. It’s done well in contests, so I guess I did it right.

But, I was thinking about another story this weekend, and the opening line popped into my head. She wasn’t waking up or looking in the mirror, but the action didn’t happen until the third line. So, I had to rework it a bit. I know, third line should be fine, right? But I had the heroine standing there doing nothing for the first two as I told backstory. Nope, not going to work. Open with the action, then tell the (limited) backstory. Readers want to move forward in time, not backward or sideways.

Last week was pretty good for working on my WIP, actually. The hubby was home sick on Wed & Thurs, and then he decided to take Friday off, so I had a man in the house with me while I was trying to work. Never an easy thing, but he spent a lot of time reading. He took one end of the couch and I took the other, plopping my laptop beside me on the little lapdesk I have. It worked fairly well, though by Friday I was getting sick of the house.

So, Friday night, we accepted an invite to go out for happy hour with friends. OMG, did we have fun. Beer and friends is always a good combination.

Saturday, I suggested we go to Borders. I took my computer and the hubby took his book. After a round of musical tables, I finally snagged one near an outlet. I worked on my WIP and managed to write about 5 pages.

I’ve been thinking about openings lately, especially since I’ve been thinking of a new story, so I’ve been talking to my husband to see what interests him in a book. He’s been reading a lot lately, and not much has really moved him. He read a David Eddings book that he didn’t much care for (this after having read the Belgariad and Malloreon last year), read Golding’s Lord of the Flies on my recommendation and thought it was okay but predictable, moved on to Stephen King’s Gunslinger where he determined that SK has a weird outlook on life, enjoyed Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and then picked up Dracula. (In fact, I guess this is beyond openings and more about story, but I still want to know how he was dragged in.)

Bram Stoker has scored a direct, and somewhat surprising to my hubby, hit. He LOVES this book, and he didn’t think he would. The man is glued to it. I bought it because I’ve never read it and always intended to, but he’s beaten me to it. And he totally loves it.

I have to admit that I enjoy seeing him so wrapped up in a book. Because I love to read and I get wrapped up like that and it’s one of the best feelings ever, and I want to share it with my husband. He doesn’t read as much as I do ordinarily, but he’s certainly been on a reading jaunt the past few weeks and he’s enjoying the hell out of it.

So how did Stoker manage to hook his readers with an opening like this?

Jonathan Harker’s Journal
3 May. Bistritz. __Left Munich at 8:35 P. M, on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible.

Knowing the train was an hour late introduces a little bit of conflict, but not enough to propel one forward. There is the suggestion, however, that Harker is on a journey. Where is he going? Why is he passing through these places so quickly and not taking time to look around? Is something urgent awaiting him? What could it be? Even though this book is from a different era, and has a century of reputation to recommend it, would it still be so popular if it didn’t manage to grip something in the modern reader’s imagination? Apparently, it does, even if it’s not quite the immediate opening of today’s commercial fiction novel.

Commerical fiction is about more than opening lines, sure, but I just picked some books off my shelves to look at random opening lines and the promise they hold (because they ARE promising something to us, or we wouldn’t keep reading):

“You’re going to feed them again?” (Heather Graham, The Island)

Going to feed who? Why is this a problem?

If Annabelle hadn’t found a body lying under “Sherman,” she wouldn’t have been late for her appointment with the Python. (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Match Me If You Can)

Oh wow, who’s Sherman, what body, and Pythons take appointments?!

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. (Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell)

Really? Cool! What did they do?

Every one of these lines promises something. The promise might vary from reader to reader, but it’s there nonetheless. And it’s what keeps us reading. That’s why, I think as I work my way through this, that static openings like dreams and driving don’t move us. It’s an overused way of delivering the promise. Sometimes, it doesn’t deliver at all, though I won’t say you can’t open a book with someone driving and make it compelling. Nora Roberts does it, that’s for sure (can’t remember the book, but she had a driving scene to open). You can even open with someone being awakened from a dream by action, but it’s been done to death. This is why agents and editors tell us to write something fresh, to twist the old into something new.

A recent article by Sam McCarver in The Writer stated that you should “begin with your strong, empathetic main character involved in a scene. Show your character facing a challenge, decision or course of action on page one–or better, in paragraph one, or even line one. Hit the ground running with activity–not with biography, history, or backstory.”

In fact, working through this right here, it occurs to me that it’s the character involved in action, not having action happen TO him or her, that makes for a compelling opening. If someone’s shooting at your character, naturally he’s going to be trying to escape.
That’s action, but only if he makes decisions that impact whether the bullet hits him or not. If all he does is duck behind a brick wall and sit and think about how he got here in the first place, that’s not too compelling. Have that bullet be threatening, so close, and have him constantly on his toes trying to get away. That will keep me reading for sure. Promise me something good, promise me consequences for failure, promise me rewards for success–just promise me something, immediately, and then set about delivering it.

Think about your promises as a writer. What did you promise in that first line? Did you deliver? Or is the promise unclear or missing? How could you fix it?