Story Tricks No.4: Strong Beginnings

Reading & Writing

A common problem I find with review novels (ie books I wouldn’t necessarily choose to read for mere pleasure) is that I’m reading something I can imagine for myself without having to plod through an entire opening page of prose about it. I don’t need to know how someone gets out of bed and makes breakfast, or how they enter a shop, or what they say to their annoying father on the phone; these are everyday occurrences for all of us. You wouldn’t spend the first paragraph of your book describing how to get dressed unless there’s a very good reason for doing so.

But it’s amazing how many writers start their books with dull descriptions, getting up, going for a walk in a wood, an ordinary day. Fiction isn’t meant to be like this – it should make you sit up and pay attention. A new book out next week wastes the first two paragraphs with a description of a man in California buying a cup of good quality coffee. I was ready to throw it in the bin before I got to the bottom of the first page. Compare that with this, the first paragraph from ‘The Collini Case’ by Ferdinand von Schirach;

‘Later they would all remember it; the floor waiter, the two elderly ladies in the lift, the married couple in the fourth floor corridor. They said the man was gigantic, and they all mentioned he smelled of sweat.’ There’s a reason, too – this man is about to commit a murder.

Here’s the opening line from ‘Petals On A Pool’ by Patrick Gale, one of my favourite short story writers. ‘Edith was at the festival because of an administrative error. It was the other Edith Chalmers they wanted.’ Hooked, much? Karen McLeod’s opening line of her debut novel is ‘I woke up in a foreign armpit.’ Nobody here is going to be spending pages describing Californian coffee.

Do I stick to this myself? I try to. Here’s the opening line of ‘The Velocity of Blame’ from ‘Red Gloves’; ‘The best way to get rid of a really big Cambodian cockroach is to wrap it in tissue paper,drop it in the toilet and pour Coco De Mer Body Butter over it so it can’t climb the walls of the bowl, because the buggers have clawed feet and can really shift.’

You don’t have to strive for unnecessary effect. I can still recall an old Alan Silitoe story which simply describes a row of red town lights in the distance as looking like a string of strawberries. The important things are to be original, memorable and honest.

11 comments on “Story Tricks No.4: Strong Beginnings”

  1. Steve says:

    I suppose “It was a dark and stormy night” is right out, then?

  2. Wayne says:

    Again you hit the nail on the head. I have started putting books down lately for these poor “Suburban” starts. It is also happening in Television Drama, Everything is so “Real Life” these days and so BORING. Take “A Mothers Son” I only managed the first ten Mins. Before becoming so bored I turned off. It all seemed so ” Been there done that” Are there no New Ideas?

  3. Alan Morgan says:

    ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ – Orwell, 1984 of course.

    But probably my favourite, ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ – Iain Banks and Crow Road.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Yes, a strong beginning is good, it hooks you in, although it shouldn’t become a strict formula as it has for so many TV shows. TV’s use of the opening-crime formula began way back in 40s radio, and then in the B/W 50s with the half-hour detective/crime shows. There’s been little change in how it’s done in the 60 years since. Dum-Da-Dum-Dum… Dum. (Is that too Deep Amer.?)
    For my money, Alan Dipper’s first – and possibly best – book, The Wave Hangs Dark, telegraphed the greatest grabber opening: “From where I was crouched the bomb looked enormous.//It was a perfectly normal two-thousand-pound aerial; time fused, not impact, and I had met dozens like it. They are dull creatures and up to a second ago I would not have dreamed that this one had any personal idiosyncrasies. Then it started to tick.”
    If you can find a copy, you’ll race through all of its 181 pages (U.S. edition.)If you do find, buy it, but don’t pay too much. You’ll find you read it so fast, you’ll probably have to go out to a film to kill the rest of your evening. Expensive.
    Here’s the end of the 4th paragraph before the lead up is told: “As usual in this game the safest place was the most dangerous – there just wasn’t time to run. I picked up the two-foot wrench and clamped it on the nose cone…”
    This is one of the novels that made me want to write. (The PCUs novels were not around then.)

  5. Helen Martin says:

    “The man stepped off the upper rung of the ladder on to the edge of the excavation pit, his shoes crunching on a pile of ancient potsherds the workmen had shovelled aside a few days before.” Just what I was reading yesterday, but to get there you’ve come past two literary quotes, both ancient; a map of the eastern Mediterranean, modern; a page of acknowledgements, and the fact at the top of the page that we’re in Mycenae in 1876, so we know we’re dealing with Schliemann and the Mask of Agamemnon. Those extra items sometimes create the mood and scene for the author and get you into the text before you’re actually there, as it were. (By the way, that “on to” in Gibbins’ sentence should be ‘onto’ in my book just as ‘in to’ implies the travel towards and arrival at somewhere whereas ‘into’ is moving from the edge to somewhere inside. It bothers me for the meaning not to be that way. Am I totally mad?)

  6. snowy says:

    “Dum-Da-Dum-Dum… Dum.” Dragnet?

    Looks like I’m going to be the only dissident then. :-) Not being a professional reviewer, I’m not forced to read things I’d rather use as emergency bum wipe. So maybe I’m a bit more lenient as a result.

    But, and I can always be wrong, have been before and will be again. Is it not necessary to build an idyll before you can cruelly destroy it?

    The Prince must surely have a few moments with the Princess before the Villian takes her away?

    While I agree just getting dressed is dull, but need not be when it is an “enrobing” I’ll try to explain, In certain forms of fiction the at the start the hero(ine) is alone, preparing for something.

    But they are at that point just a undescribed cypher, it’s only as they “enrobe” for the task ahead do we learn who they are, where they came from, what they plan to do, to who, and how. Like an actor getting into costume and makeup, and becoming his or her fully realised character.

    [Not to be confused with "tooling up" which is something else entirely, and usually reads like a shopping list at Gun's R Us. Even visually it's trite, with one exception, there is a scene in one of the 'Arnie' films that is so overplayed, it becomes an hysterically funny, 60 second hymn to bondage and penetration. Things are strapped up, strapped down, cinched and belted, intercut with other things that are being slid, thrust, rammed, locked, cocked and sheathed. Still makes giggle even now.]

    While a begining may need to have allure, like the over the shoulder glance or the wink, that says ‘follow me, and you’ll have a fun time’. Very few readers will remember it later, if they do then something has gone very wrong in the following 300+ pages.

    The exception being where the story begins where it ends. And even then authors play safe and replay the same scene at the end with a slight twist. [I'm thinking of 'Tiger, Tiger' by Alfred Bester.]

    P.S. While my experience of cockroaches is (thankfully) limited, and that of Body Butter even more so. Where do you buy yours? All the ones I’ve ever seen pour about as convincingly as lemon curd.

    Helen I think you are as mad as a box of frogs ;-)
    [But I wouldn't have you any other way for all the treasure in the world] :-)

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Helen – you are not mad, just have the eye and proclivities of an editor. I’m married to a professional English, German & Latin instructor. I would never ask her to read a first draft.

  8. M.E. Hydra says:

    I started one with the line “Have you ever fucked a fish?” It sort of did the job apart from the story missed the first few days of the competition I entered it for as I had to explain to the organisers that no bestiality was involved after it tripped their auto censors.

    Cockroaches are harmless. All they do is scuttle. Occasionally it’s a bit of a pain to shake them out of shirt sleeves in the morning.

  9. M.E. Hydra says:

    Oh, and thanks for the story tricks series, Admin. Always loved the short story collections of yours I could find.

  10. Alan G says:

    “Welcome to the bad world of big business. Companies are like icebergs, mostly hidden from view”

  11. Marc says:

    I’m going through the The Time Out Book of London Short Stories at the moment. Having read this post, the opening sentances are receiving extra scrutiny. And I’ve just noted you practise what you preach…

    ‘If my Uncle Stanley hadn’t passed out pornographic polaroids of his second wife for the amusement of his football mates in the bar of the Skinner’s Arms, I might have moved to London.’

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