You’ve got an amazing tale. Sterling characters. Brilliant details. Rich language. Action and tension crackling on every page…
And you enter the story via an unimportant childhood moment.
This palm-to-face moment is brought to you by the bestseller I’m reading right now. In the interests of not sabotaging my own writing career (in case I meet this author) I cannot divulge name or title. Let it be summarized as this: The first half of the book is an episodic series of cliches plus one beat-down–and little more.
Where do we enter?
The place to begin a story was a contentious mystery for fellow writers back in my college days, and it still is. Do you tell the whole story as a flashback? Do you start when your heroine is just a wee lass of 9 years? If so, how come?
Teachers urged us to make it interesting–focus on the heart of the tale–and that’s what I’ve always aspired to do. (Yup, I’ve made some colossal mistakes along the way.) Entering a story can seem like the proverbial dartboard toss, with your best guess held up to plenty of scrutiny. It isn’t only writers block which fills the wastebasket with crumpled tries.
So, I’ve tried. In The Churning and Tempest Road, the heroes are already in a lot of trouble on the first page. Movie versions would open differently–Why can’t we see the abduction in grainy glory?–to spare most audience members a head-scratching moment.
In Endgame (Woman at War 1) we start in a battle. The war has begun. The belligerent Mitasterites have already displayed despicable behavior (sending unarmed teen-aged soldiers out to be sniper fodder). Heroine June Vereeth is about to take one of many important shots. Bam, you’re dropped right in it! Attempts at diplomacy or appeasement exist as fragments of wishful thinking in the past. I didn’t want to spend pages on them. (And with an entire world to build over the span of the novel, too much backstory would become uninteresting mud.)
The second in the series, Destruction, opens with our heroine’s boots dangling 3,000 feet over a fog-shrouded rock wasteland. Climbing ropes and old-school projectile weapons (when you read it, you’ll understand) and a ridiculously challenging mission. And bad guys. And an unforeseen menace. Sure, there’s plenty to tell about Vereeth’s adventure between P-75 (Endgame) and this mountain-climbing nightmare, but why lead with any of that?
Openings I Love
So, as this post is about the tricky waters of where to enter a story, let me list a few of my favorites (before I get to those no-nos).
“Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Two innocent teenage boys are approached by a lightning-rod salesman. Within hours, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has arrived to take over the sleepy Midwestern town. The carefree boys will never be the same.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” With the story told from “Chief” Bromden’s point of view, Kesey gives us just enough of the asylum’s machinery and insanity to set the scene. Enter the all-consuming R.P. McMurphy and we’re off to the races. The book could not have ended correctly any other way than the way it was writen. Brilliant.
“The Lovely Bones.” Susie Salmon, our narrator, is dead. While we experience some of the fear and hesitation of her young life’s moments, there is no tease of possibility that this good, likeable little girl escapes death. Now let’s get on with the story.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain.” Enzo, our immensely likeable narrator, is a dog. Garth Stein’s most famous work to date may be a bit of a gimmick, but it’s a beautifully written tale of the challenges of modern life and man’s best friend. And the first page (no spoiler alert) ends with a line that hits you like a hammer.
to be continued…