First Words: Starting Your Story

Reading & Writing

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I recently discovered a short book called ‘Plotting & Writing Suspense Fiction’ by Patricia Highsmith. I’ve always enjoyed her lean, mean fiction, and feel she was (as she says) lucky to be working in a time when you could attract a director like Alfred Hitchcock to film a tale. Her book is a simply written and heartfelt masterclass on how she worked, but it seems to have annoyed many readers who expected her to unbox some kind of holy grail of writing secrets.

As someone with a suspense novel out soon (‘Little Boy Found’ – a Quercus e-book first, under my new pen-name LK Fox) I’ve been reading about how to write them – I know, wrong way around. But anyone who works hard at being a writer (I think I safely qualify in this category) knows that there is no over-arching secret key that will unlock the art of writing. Highsmith admits this but generously gives us lots of tricks of the trade.

As I read it, I became aware that I’m already following most of her advice – which hasn’t dated – although I have never taken a writing course or read a self-help book in my life. Her slim volume is packed with tasty aphorisms;

A good story should start as near to the end as possible.

Positive emotions create better plots than negative ones.

Stories should have nothing to do with moralising or convention.

Thickening a plot means piling on complications.

And my favourite; ”It is easier to write if you live with someone, because that person can open the door and answer the telephone.’

She analyses many of her novels’ opening sentences, and decides (rightly, I think) that action should start a suspense story, not tranquil reflections or descriptions. You’d be amazed how many novels take an age to get going. So I decided to take a look back at the opening lines of some of my novels, to see if they fitted the same pattern.

They’re all very different, but each one eggs the reader on ago find out a little more. Here’s what I found:

Roofworld

Getting him into the bell tower proved to be a laborious business. The door at the top of the narrow stone steps had been securely padlocked, so that they had to stand with the boy propped between them, waiting for Chymes to suggest some way of gaining entry.

Calabash

One minute past midnight. Sixty seconds into the new century. His friends are gathered around his hospital bed, joyously liberating cascades of champagne into plastic cups. He lies beneath their outstretched arms, their tumbling streamers, their cheers and toasts, and though he cannot move, he wishes them all the love in the world.

Spanky

All this has happened before, and will happen again. But this time it happened in London, to the most ordinary of mortals. It happened to a man lost and damned in a tangle of wet North London streets, a man who appeared to be running for his life.

Plastic

There’s blood everywhere, and none of it’s where it’s supposed to be. On the carpet. On the curtains. All over me. And I know it won’t wash out because this shirt is pure silk. If you don’t want to ruin silk, never sneeze in a Starbucks with a mouth full of blueberry muffin. As I sit here I keep thinking if only I could go back to my old life. I could head into the kitchen and start going through the ironing again, except that the iron is now sticking out of the TV screen.

Soho Black

“She’s wearing a wire but the police can’t hear what she’s saying because the neon all around her is interfering with it.”

Psychoville

This is how you make an incendiary bomb.

Nyctophobia

‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a conundrum,’ said the auctioneer at the podium. Two young men in grey coats carried the piece to the side of the stage and set it down. ‘Lot 147. A late nineteenth century French Vernis Martin Bonheur De Jour writing desk. The top is inlaid with cherrywood marquetry and has a fine brass gallery. The fall is decorated with another marquetry panel. There are matching panels on the sides and in the front, and when opened it reveals three drawers, for one of which the key has been lost. Who knows what the lucky buyer might find inside?’

Full Dark House

It really was a hell of a bang.

The Sand Men

A sky so blue it looked like the atmosphere had evaporated into space. Mandhatri Sahonta stared into the infinity, then lowered his blue NYC baseball cap over his eyes, adjusting his hardhat on top of it. He was unimpressed by the sky. It was always this blue here, always this bright.

Hell Train

It looked like a house from a horror film, and it was. As the red MG bounced along the narrow country lane, Shane Carter cleared condensation from the windscreen and Down Place appeared before him like a slightly down-at-heel fairytale castle.

Rune

On the streets of London, nobody notices a running man.

Paperboy

Early one morning at the height of summer in 1960, I returned from the corner shop with a packet of Weetabix* under my arm and stopped to stare at the alien death ray that was scorching the pavement in front of me.

Film Freak

I’m sitting in a rundown, soon-to-be-demolished cinema in Wardour Street with a tiny group of paying customers. The walls are covered in peeling crimson paint with gold filigreed mouldings. There’s a nostril-stinging smell of mildew. The screen is stained and has a rip in it. The ceiling leaks. I am desperately trying to follow the on-screen action, but I’m so upset that I start crying.

The only on I remember especially working on to punch up was the opening of ‘Spanky’, and to me it’s the only one that feels awkward. Once you hit your stride in a book and the characters take over – hopefully as soon as possible – you stop striving for effect and lose the authorial voice.

It’s why I distrust and usually dislike films with voiceover narration. If you can’t think of a way to show it, don’t read it out to me!

 

 

6 comments on “First Words: Starting Your Story”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I read somewhere that it is best to try and let the characters tell the story through the dialogue as much as poss, instead of through the narrative. As an avid reader I find this to be true. It brings the story to life and makes it more immediate.

    Though I read a lot of crime fiction, I also like PG Wodehouse who’s novels are more than 90% dialogue. He once aptly described his stories as musical comedies without the music.

  2. Steveb says:

    Donald Westlake under his Richard Stark penname was the master of starting with action in the first sentence. The books start along the lines of, ‘As the gunman burst through the door, Parker was already moving…’

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Before I read the post I looked at the picture and was imagining it in a book which started “Holding on seemed an impossibility after the first few seconds.” A kids’ Lit prof told us you should be hooked by the end of the first page and if you aren’t by the end of page 5 throw it away.

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    Excluding a couple of your own efforts Mr F, I suggest one of the best openings of all is Robert Byron’s travel book The Road to Oxiana. Sets the scene, sets the tone, and conjures up that little touch of intrigue that makes you read on.

    VENICE, 20 AUGUST 1933
    Here as a joy-hog: a pleasant change after that pension on the Giudecca two years ago. We went to the Lido this morning, and the Doge’s Palace looked more beautiful from a speedboat than it ever did from a gondola. The bathing, on a calm day, must be the worst in Europe: water like hot saliva, cigar-ends floating into one’s mouth, and shoals of jellyfish.
    Lifar came to dinner. Bertie mentioned that all whales have syphilis.

  5. Roger says:

    The opposite technique can also be very effective – the slow entry into the world of the novel, like someone half-asleep in the ocean who never realises they have drifted out of sight of land. Hardy, James, Conrad, for example. The opening of A Question of Upbringing is a late example, but I think it could still be effective.

  6. Harry Harrison wrote a good analysis of getting the hook in as early as possible. Submissions to pulp publishers when he started writing had to fit a specific format, which meant that only so many words would get onto the first page. As the editors would only definitely read whatever made it into that first page it was vital to make them want to turn over. So he basically practised writing lots of exciting opening paras that worked this system. One of them turned into the Stainless Steel Rat. That’s why the story opens with a three ton safe dropping onto a cop’s head, but the cop contines to talk. That’s where the first page of the manuscript ended – hoping that it was a wtf moment that would get the page turned.

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