One is the “I’m so interesting” opening that is anything but.
I recently tried to read a couple of first-person novels with this problem. They began with the narrator giving us his name and a chapter of backstory. Long before the end of the chapter I was thinking, Why am I listening to you?
Let me illustrate. You go to a party and see a guy. You introduce yourself, and he says, “Hi. My name is Chaddington Flesch. Most people call me Cutty, because my grandfather, Bill Flesch, refused to call me anything else. He liked Cutty Sark, you see, and thought this name would make a man out of me. All through school I had to explain why I was called Cutty. Growing up in Brooklyn, that wasn’t always easy. Even today, at my job, which happens to be as an accountant …”
You stand there thinking, I’m sorry, but I don’t care about your history. Nice meeting you, but …
But what if you introduce yourself and he says, “Did you avoid the cops outside?”
You shake your head.
“I got stopped by a cop out there on the street. He tells me to hit the sidewalk, face down, and proceeds to kick me in the ribs. I say, ‘There’s been a mistake.’ He gets in my face and says, ‘You’re the mistake. I’m the correction.’”
What does that make you think? Either: Am I talking to a criminal? or What happened to this guy? You’re certainly not bored. You’re hooked on what happened to him.
That’s the key to opening a first-person novel. Begin with the narrator describing action — not dumping a pile of backstory. You can blend that in later.
[from 361 by Donald Westlake]
I got off the plane at Maguire, and sent a telegram to my dad from the terminal before they loaded us into buses. Two days later, the Air Force made me a civilian, and I walked toward the gate in my own clothes, a suitcase in each hand.
I was a mess.
[from Blackmailer by George Axelrod]
The girl’s name was Jean Dahl. That was all the information Miss Dennison had been able to pry out of her. Miss Dennison had finally come back to my office and advised me to talk to her. “She’s very determined,” my secretary said. “I just can’t seem to get rid of her.”
Then Miss Dennison winked. It was a dry, spinsterish, somewhat evil wink.
[from Try Darkness by James Scott Bell]
The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.”
These are hardboiled examples, but even literary writing doesn’t have to mean leisurely. Open your novel with a character in motion. Your chances of hooking an agent or editor — and a reader — go way up.
One of my biggest tips to new writers is the “Chapter 2 Switcheroo.” Delete Chapter 1 and open with Chapter 2.
At least 90 percent of the time, that makes all the difference, because the characters are moving. There’s action. Something is happening.
Truly important backstory can be dribbled in later. Readers will always wait for backstory if your frontstory is moving.
James Scott Bell is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Deceived, Try Dying, and Watch Your Back. A winner of the Christy Award, he has been a finalist for the International Thriller Writers Award. He has written popular craft books for Writer’s Digest Books including: Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers, and Conflict & Suspense.
At the 2014 Writing for the Soul conference, he will teach six classes on fiction:
● Why Your Plot Stakes Must Be Death
● Three Pillars of Perfect Structure
● Page Turning Techniques of the Pros
● Scene Building Through Fear
● Essentials of Great Dialogue
● How to Build an E-book Career