In the preceding eLog post I introduced Jeffrey Schechter’s My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, a writing help book for screen plays adaptable to short stories, novellas, and novels. Using the structure he puts forth, I wrote the first chapter. This time let’s look at another writer’s guide, Hooked by Les Edgerton (1). (No, this is not about my legendary ancestor Capt. Christopher Newport, prototype for the infamous Capt. James Hook.) This is about the first words you set down to draw the reader into your story.
You will repeatedly see the admonition and warning, maybe even threats of bodily violence, Do Not Use, “It was a dark a stormy night.” Well, chuck that. I successfully open several novels with storm scenes; For All Time and Eternity, Death by Top Secret, and Man With No Name. When I set to writing the opening to Order of the Brethren, the one that eventually spilled onto the computer screen begins on a story night. Why? Attempting to apply Edgerton's guidelines, this seems a natural way to open the tale.
Admittedly, I have waffled during subsequent edits of the scene, not about the contents, but the tense. An omnipresent storyteller spins the story in past tense. The opening paragraphs are in present tense. This is an experiment not yet set in stone. The reader begins in the mind of our hero’s wife to see and experience what she is dreaming which portend events to happen, a kind of preview for the reader.
Mariah isn’t sure where she is. It’s pitch black. Perhaps in the beach house, or on the beach, or in their bedroom. That doesn’t matter. It is her husband’s smell, his strong arms encircling her body, his lips gently caressing her neck. She hopes it’s on the beach. That’s where all their children have been conceived, and it is time to have another baby. Then there is movement behind his broad shoulders, something coming toward them, cloaked in black, indistinguishable. It grabs his arm and begins pulling him away. Her hand locks onto the other arm with a tenacious grip. She will not let him go. Not again. He looks at her and smiles. She fights to hold on, but knows it’s useless. Releasing his arm, anger fills her breast.
The apparition hands him a sword. It’s broken. The symbol of death. Her husband gently takes her chin in one hand and kisses her upon the lips as tears stain her cheeks. As her husband and the spectre begin to disappear into the blackness Jean-Paul runs to his father and takes his hand. She tries to scream, NO, but the sound is drown by the explosion of cannon fire. They are lost in a sea of blinding light until seeing a body laid out on a table. It is covered by a white clothe, only the feet exposed, bare and motionless. She knows those feet and screams.
Edgerton states in the introduction to Hooked that a tremendous number of stories are not read by agents and editors (and more importantly potential readers) because they do not begin in the right place. The opening scene should have something happen to the protagonist creating the surface problem and indicate the story-worthy problem.
Things to avoid like the Black Plague are 1) ruminating about some problem, 2) backstory, 3) telling the reader that something has affected the hero, 4) reveries about the hero’s good or bad luck, stupidity, or brilliance, 5) the narrator’s description of what he sees, and 6) opening with dialogue. There should be a hint of trouble to come.
In this opening we find one of our protagonists in a confused state which might be frightening except for the presence of her husband. They have a positive, close relationship. Forty-three words. In the next twenty-two words we learn of her future hopes, and then in steps an antagonist, a spectre who attempts to take her husband away. Backstory in eight words: "She will not let him go. Not again." She loses the struggle because her husband desires to leave which makes her angry.
The dream continues with a reference to a broken sword, in dream lore a reference to death. Again, their love is dramatized before a second tragedy enters when her son joins hubby and the spectre as they depart. Her protest is drown by the noise of a cannon-like explosion (this is a pirate story, after all), and then she sees a body lying beneath a shroud. Recognizing the feet, she screams and awakes.
Many people hold the notion that dreams can portend the future and that is exactly to what these references allude. Despite the great love between husband and wife, hubby is going to leave on a dangerous journey, their son will accompany him, and someone is going to die.
As chapter one evolves it is not necessary to give copious amounts of backstory. That was all covered in a previous edition, The Urchin Pirate, therefore it is only necessary to give passing mention to certain, important points by providing hints pertinent to the continuing tale. As the chapter closes, a “ghost” from the past approaches our hero to solicit help on an adventure. Their son joins him. Much of the dream comes to fruition except for the premonition of impending death.
For those who read the preceding books, The Urchin Pirate and Lions of el Bayadh, know that I am not partial to characters. The time period—early 1600’s—and their lifestyle—sailing the open seas in leaky boats, and piracy, were not conducive to longevity. These stories reflect the history of the period.
The opening paragraph or first page (which is usually only one-third as long as a regular page) must capture the reader and draw them into the story. This particular opening is an experiment and may not do it. That’s why beta readers and editors are so important; therefore the beginning of this story could drastically change by the final draft. It is not uncommon for me to write opening paragraphs as many as twenty or thirty times! You read that correctly. This is about the twelfth opening drafted so far. Whether a short story, novella, or novel this one element of the story really must be the right write.
Next time, Act 2, the journey begins.
(1) Edgerton, Les, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go, Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. (Paperback, ISBN-978-1582974576; Available as Kindle edition)
Editorial comment: Used bookstores offer Hooked at about $2 for a like new copy up to $15. The Kindle edition is overpriced at about $10 as is most traditional publisher offerings.