In the beginning

I’ve never been one to blindly accept conventional wisdom. (For example, I don’t mind split infinitives.) In the business of writing it leads to conventional fiction for conventional readers, and while that is the bulk of the marketplace, it’s not going to take anyone anywhere interesting or challenging.

Among the conventions I’ve looked askance at is the notion of starting your story with a slam-bang opening. Now I realize that certain genres have their standards and certain readers have their expectations and all of that, but not all do, and some books with the most measured and mannerly openings have been satisfying reads for me.

Maybe I’m an oddball, but when I pick up a book, I feel as though I have opened a contract with the author. He or she has provided a product, and I am going to give it a fair chance. That means I am either a) going to read the whole thing or b) going to try very hard to appreciate it on its terms before I give up, leaving the book unfinished. Thus I don’t think I must have some gripping opening to ensnare my interest, and a part of me would wonder how substantial a book will be if it must begin this way. We’re all adults here, aren’t we? The gripping opening seems like speed dating, like an adolescent thrill, and I fear it is just as transitory. Do you want to invest a lifetime with adolescent pursuits, or do you want something deeper, longer lasting, and more satisfying?

Granted, a gripping opening doesn’t have to involve violent action. An intriguing description, a curious dialogue, a bit of word play, an interesting narrative might do the trick. Even an intellectual conundrum might attract the attention of certain readers.

I ramble on about all of this because I am fast approaching the big rewrite of my novel in progress, The Sleep of Reason, casting it from first-person narration to third person. It seems like a fine chance to make some structural changes, and one of them might be the opening scene. As it is currently written, the story opens with the meeting of my protagonist and antagonist in their first semester at college. I give some important background about each, but after a couple thousand words, the rest of the story takes place in the present time, with them as grown men of power in the business world. I end the first chapter there, and I bring in the first example of the weirdness that inhabits the rest of the novel.

Now I’m thinking that perhaps I should begin with the weirdness, which I think is gripping, and somehow weave in the backstory later. It might be in better keeping with the conventions of commercial writing, but it doesn’t seem natural to me. As I said, I think an opening can be intriguing without ‘splosions, and maybe I’m writing for a more serious reader.

I doubt that I’ll recast my opening, but it is on my mind, and I’ll probably keep the mechanics of it in the back of my head in case some agent or editor asks me to give it a try later.

Explore posts in the same categories: Humble efforts, Sleep of Reason

2 Comments on “In the beginning”

  1. Pete Says:

    The trouble with slam-bang openings is that the writer has to sustain that energy level for the entire book, or else the reader will see everything after the opening as a big letdown. I prefer something more subtle in an opening (a premise or unanswered question that gives me the “what’s going on here?” feeling) that builds over the course of a novel and keeps me reading.

  2. Yarnspnr Says:

    Just be careful in going from 1st to 3rd person. It’s easy to slip up and leave some mistakes along the way which your readers will be so very happy to point out to you. Enjoy your rewrite!

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