Thursday, June 30, 2011

Open Here

Nathan Bransford recently blogged on 5 openings to think carefully about using. He specifically did not say you cannot create an effective beginning with them, only that they pose particular challenges. This is a good thing, because my reaction to "never" and "can't" is "I love a challenge! I'll show you!" Here's his list of "Beware Beginnings:"

1. A character waking up.
2. A character looking in a mirror.
3. Extended dialog with insufficient grounding.
4. Action with insufficient grounding.
5. Character does X and by the way, they're dead. (I have never wanted to open a story this way, but I suppose there's a macabre, gotcha, Twilight Zone appeal to it, but it's really a stupid trick to play on the reader and as a reader, I would not give that author a second chance.)

The first two are variations of the "white room syndrome." A character wakes up in a white room (and looks in a mirror). The white room or the empty room represents the blankness of the writer's mind. So instead of staring at a blank computer screen or sheet of paper, we stare at an opening setting. The mirror also serves as a metaphor for the writer having no idea who this character, where he is or what he is doing.

Here's the thing: I think these are perfectly good ways to begin a draft. Some writers are obsessive about working out every scene before they put it into words. They agonize over every sentence as they create it. Their first drafts are marvels of planning and precision.

I'm not one of them.

For me, a blank screen is like a glass mountain. It's too hard and thick to push through and too slippery to climb. Putting almost any words on paper/screen is my key to unlock the hidden door. Almost always, I will discard those first few pages, that first scene. But I need to start somewhere, to overcome that inertia, to give me something to tear down. If I am willing to write an idiotic opening -- character awakens in a white room with no memory of who she is until she looks into a mirror -- and let the words come, let the character speak to me, let the scene unfold, then I will, by slow stages or amazing leaps, be led to something of value. The white room is an act of creative faith.

The next two openings involve content without context, the content being either people talking or people doing things. Often the "shoot the sheriff on the first page" openings fall into this category. Bullets whizz by, people shout, there's lots of frenzy but we can't figure out what's going on or why we should care. For all we know, the sheriff getting shot is a good thing. Because the writer has not presented what we need to care about -- or even comprehend -- this content, it is impoverished, if not devoid, of meaning.

For all their drawbacks, these two openings have a small advantage, which is that something is going on. The temptation then becomes thinking we can flesh out the setting (all too often with flashbacks that destroy whatever momentum we've flailed around establishing in the first place). Because these scenes have the semblance of substance, it then becomes harder to rip them out, although it is almost always just as necessary as it is to delete the white room or mirror scenes.

When I was a fairly new writer, I thought I had to open with frantic action in order to hook the reader. I turned in story after story that were classic examples of "Action With Insufficient Grounding." Finally, one of my writing buddies, undoubtedly frustrated by my inability to understand what the problem was, asked me to describe an action-packed opening of a book I liked. I'd recently read Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane, so I mentioned that. At his suggestion, I then took a look at what was really in the book as opposed to what I remembered. Yep, there's action (an ambush) but it doesn't happen until about 10 pages into the story, at which point I knew and cared about the characters and their quest.

I mentioned above the temptation to try to solve the "with insufficient grounding" flaws by adding more contextual material. In my experience, that doesn't work. What does work is admitting that this is the wrong Point of Entry, and trying coming into the story either before or after that scene. Before sounds logical. Write the set-up, then the action, right? But it isn't always right. What we're seeking is the sweet spot of instability that launches the forward momentum of the story. In that sense, the white room false-start gives us more freedom; we're less apt to be welded to those particular words.

If any of those openings (except the last, the dead guy) get us putting words down, moving into the story, writing stuff we know doesn't work but leads us to stuff that does, then I say go for it. Don't be afraid to make mistakes in that first draft. Make it rough, flop around, throw up lots of chaff and dust. Turn it into a fermentation vat of ideas, images, characters, dialog, events and non-events. Then you can do the winnowing. You can rewrite the opening from the perspective of having seen the shape of the whole story. Looking back, you'll be in a better position to see what that opening requires, what is best moved later in the story, and what is unnecessary and distracting or counterproductive. In other words, give yourself the space and freedom to experiment.

The only draft that matters is the one on your editor's desk.

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