Story Tricks No.4: Strong Beginnings
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.