In the Beginning . . .

Happy New Year, if January 1 is not totally arbitrary.  I thought a small discussion of openings might be a suitable topic for the day and the season.

Every writer knows the most frequently asked question (“where do you get your ideas”) is followed by half a dozen others, among them “how do you know when to start the story?”  The first answer (at the beginning”) provokes a justified wail, “but how do you know when it all began?”  Uh.  The second real answer is “in medias res,” in the middle of things.  In other words, you plunge into the ongoing story at what seems like a good spot.  For me, that spot doesn’t occur until the characters have begun to talk to each other and I can hear distinct voices.  For that reason, my stories often begin with a dialog between two characters, one of whom is a viewpoint character and the other of whom has some importance in the plot.

With murder mysteries, the cliche opening is discovery of the corpse.  There are variations–discovery of the corpse by the amateur detective in the amateur detective’s quaint home town, discovery of the corpse by a cop who goes directly to the amateur detective to consult (or arrest) him or her, discovery of the ambulant victim, a viewpoint character, by the killer who pulls a gun or other weapon and everything goes black, presumably in mid-sentence.

I don’t like to use the discovery of corpse opening, though I grant it does get things going fast.  The obvious trouble is that the murder on page three doesn’t stir the reader’s feelings.  There has been no opportunity to get to know either the victim or the killer.  Few readers enjoy goggling a dead body all that much.  Mysteries are puzzle stories.  Only when the puzzle to be solved has to do with the nature of the killing does opening with the corpse make sense.  If the real puzzle involves why that person was killed, the writer is better off dramatize dramatizing the conflicts that will lead to murder, then laying the corpse down in chapter four or five.

The corpse-in-chapter-one opening is now so common that the devoted mystery reader expects it.  If you don’t giver your readers a dead body, you will be creating a little hum of suspense under the surface of the action you do dramatize.  Delay satisfying the expectation a couple of chapters.  Then when you do deliver the body, you’ll make a big bang.

Well, what else?  I could go on about the imagery of openings.  You can open with a figure of speech that helps define the central question.  Yeats’s “The Second Coming” opens with a falcon circling in spirals that widen until it can no long hear the call of the hunter.  Once we see the falcon, the poet slams us with it’s real meaning.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .”  The falcon image is so strong, I’m sure there are thousands of readers who believe the poem is about hunting.  If you’re writing prose, I think you need to keep your figures of speech infrequent.  One strong one per chapter will have more impact that half a dozen on a single page.

What about sound effects?  Writers of prose fiction are apt to ignore the fact that language is primarily oral and that the sounds the writer makes set the mood of the story subliminally.  Written language hums its own tune.  In English, alliteration is the oldest of the poetic sound effects.  In can be annoying or unintentionally funny, as in A Midsummernight’s Dream:  “. . . with bloody blameful blade, /He bravely broached his boiling, bloody breast.”  But the Anglo Saxons would use only two sound repetitions out of three stressed syllable in the half-line.  They knew when to quit.  So do I, so I’ll just say, listen to your language, especially the opening.


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