Monday, June 24, 2013

Openings - Tension, tension, tension

Readers always want tension. Authors know that.

Opening lines were the topic of the last post. While not just one line, openings, according to feedback received, require an extended discussion and we'll bite off another chunk here. While it's hard to generalize or slice openings into neat categories, I'm going to try assuming there is but one genre, which we all know is not true.

Opening tension, what's it about?

1. Tension versus grounding.

There is a general admonition for writers to create tension in the opening. That often runs counter to grounding, which I define as giving the reader an exact time, place, and context of the action.

To be vague, often creates tension. "Don't do that," she screamed." Okay, you're grounded in that its a female. But is she really in distress, or in euphoric joy. Let's not be sexist. We don't actually know what created the comment. Sure, the word "screamed" could indicate danger. But would that be so if this speaker was in a room of numerous loud voices and she didn't wish the caterer to place the food next to the exit door. Who's in danger? The speaker? Another person? Or is her pet dog raising a leg?

Many readers require to be immediately grounded, or they're flipping the story closed as a waste of their valuable time. And, who can blame them for desiring the security not to have to figure out the details of time and place. And, this knowledge can include both the physical as well as the emotional facts. Remember the cliché of: "It was a dreary and stormy night on the ............"

If you've read any of Robert Crais's best-selling novels, you'll begin with a straightforward description of characters and location, even if there's no immediate indication of conflict or tension. Obviously, that's what his readers expect and he delivers.

A descriptive on-board conversation of Sister Fidelma of Cashel sets the stage for Peter Tremayne in The Dove of Death to start the adventure with a death-defying jump into the sea and a dramatic rescue to avoid certain death.

2. Tension versus mood.

Yes, some novels depend on mood. Note above, a dark and storm night. However, it's easy to overdo the description of mood if relying on nature rather than human emotions. Readers, and I have no specific survey to quote, attach themselves easier to human emotions than the swaying of branches, a silvery moon, or the old chestnut of an approaching storm to equate to or suggest pending danger.

The trick for weather moods is to incorporate it into the personality, fears, or hopes of the witnessing character. Example 1: He shuddered at every strike of lightning; his father had been killed by a late August strike. Example 2: She felt calm. The wind did that. Example 3: Whenever George touched a wet rock, he thought of his pet turtle that slipped from his grip into the rapids and never surfaced.

While its sad, visual media has overpowered most written descriptions of natural phenomena. The descriptions are still important as seasoning, if not the main dinner course.

3.  Tension ploys.

Many authors employ short, staccato sentences or non-sentences to create tension. In the short term, it can work. The gunslinger flexed his fingers. His holster tied to his right leg. The six-shooter loaded. The crow cried. Dust settled. His eyes straight ahead. Unmoving. His fingers flexed again.

After two pages, aren't you ready to say, fire or die?

Monday, June 3, 2013

The First Line - Getting It Write

Over time, novel opening lines have been there to inspire parody, haunt the memory, or, and this is their critical importance, no matter how or by what technique, the reader must read the next line. And then the next until that most desired line of all - the concluding one. You might have favorite opening lines or know the classics. If you have the urge to write, you probably do.

J.D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye relied on Charles Dickens and David Copperfield. Chris Cleave in Incendiary begins with: "Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop." Janet Evanovich starts with a different tone in One for the Money. She writes: "There are some men who enter a woman's life and screw it up for ever."

And no, Herman Melville hasn't been forgotten. You can fill in the blank. "They call me _______."

Writers and readers have a convergence, they both must start at the same words. So what kind of advice would it be to advise to start at the beginning? Well, it's true. It's necessary. The sticky point is: is the start enticing?

It's been claimed that one Montana writer spent eight years working on his novel's opening line. While the truth may not be known, there's one truth that's inescapable. Once the line is written for the last time, it's there for history. A daunting challenge, for sure.

Rather than go off on the theoretical, I've decided to set forth the opening lines currently topping the page of several works in progress. There's no rule that says an opening line can't be created by more than one person, although cartoonists have been having fun with committee creations for decades.

There's no right or wrong dream to where the words point, so enjoy. (I've substituted initials for character names. If your opening line wants to use initials for a character, go for it.)

1.  "Standing motionless, A.G. counted the day as both zero and one."

2.  "Chocolate smelled sweet, death did not."

3.  "E. feared that, if she looked, it would still be there."

4.  "Huffing and puffing, G.K. welcomed fatigue to punish his lack of imagination."

5.  "To counteract her chest-tightening sadness, A.H. squeezed both hands gripping her
       Ford F-150 steering wheel until her fingers ached and the depression between her
       raised knuckles mimicked the ruts in the rural road leading to Grandma's farm."

6.  "'Don't need help,' R.K., in the Angel Springs, Louisiana, Bayou Downs barn,
       admonished Uncle Joe."

7.  "Passersby would believe J.O.'s eyes gazed aimlessly past bobbing shrimp boats to
      the Gulf of Mexico horizon."

8.  "A. F. grieved the loss of two mothers."

An intriguing exercise, should you wish to do it, would be to write the second sentence to each of the above. If you do, you're on your way to completing your story. And, that's the hidden point of writing an opening line. It gets you started.