Thursday, August 19, 2010

Are you sitting comfortably?

Good. Because Biddy's post on Endings got me thinking of Beginnings, and the different ways we writers start our stories.

Nearly every writing guide I own warns me that readers these days don't have the same patience readers used to have, and that to hold their attention we writers should cut to the chase, in the literal sense. We should start with a 'hook', in the midst of the action, and not waste time painting the scenery or - horror of horrors - describing the weather.

Which often makes me wonder just how many classic novels, ones I've read, re-read and loved, would even make it past an editor these days, with opening sentences like: 'When the east wind blows up Helford river the shining waters become troubled and disturbed, and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores.'

And how's this for an opening paragraph? 'James Macfadden died in March 1905 when he was forty-seven years old; he was riding in the Driffield Point-to-Point. He left the bulk of his money to his son Douglas. The Macfaddens and the Dalhousies at that time lived in Perth, and Douglas was a school friend of Jock Dalhousie, who was a young man then, and had gone to London to become a junior partner in a firm of solicitors in Chancery Lane, Owen, Dalhousie, and Peters. I am now the senior partner, and Owen and Dalhousie and Peters have been dead for many years, but I never changed the name of the firm.'

I can all but hear a modern agent or editor screaming, 'Who CARES?', and yet, although that particular book goes on for several more pages in the same leisurely vein before anything actually happens to the narrator - before he first meets the young woman who will be the catalyst for all the story that follows - I love it all the same, and always have.

Most of my own books, admittedly, start rather slowly. Like a filmmaker who opens with a wide establishing shot and then comes closer, I like to let my readers see my heroines in context, maybe even get to know them just a little, before setting things in motion.

Not to say I don't like books that start with action - some writers are amazingly good at it, and some, like Dean Koontz, can work both weather and a strong hook into their opening sentences, as he does in Dragon Tears: 'Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.'

I'm just saying that we all have different voices, and a storyteller's voice can sometimes draw me in as surely as a 'hook', no matter what the writing gurus of the moment say.

Are you the same? Or do you need to have your interest grabbed by that first sentence?

(By the way, bragging rights go to the first commenter who can correctly identify BOTH novels from which the 'slow' openings above are taken!)

Don't forget to come back on Sunday, when Anna will be posting.


  1. Delurking to try:

    Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier and Town Like Alice by Nevel Shute?

    I cheated on Schute's name, but I remembered the the novel! I still don't know why all those simply-stated facts sucked me in, but I'm glad they did.

  2. I'm with you, Susanna - I think it's okay to start slowly as long as you're being drawn into the book and it's not just boring waffle. Of course certain types of book, like thrillers, may need to start with a "bang", but not all romantic ones IMO. Like you said, it's to do with the author's voice and we're all different. I was actually thinking about this yesterday because the book I'm working on seems to start slowly and I was worried there's no "bang" to get the reader hooked immediately. But then I realised that the slower pace suits the story better so I'll have to take my chances that readers agree.

  3. Sarah W, you got it in one! Yes, I've always loved Nevil Shute's style -- like having a favourite uncle settle back in an armchair and say, 'Now, HERE's an interesting story...'

    (And I'm happy you decided to delurk!)

    Christina, you're right -- every book seems to have its own pace, and some characters just won't be rushed. I always try to trust my instincts, and ignore the pundits. Where's this new book set?

  4. What I think is 'wrong' with slow beginnings is that it's an opportunity for the reader to put the book down. I try not to give them too many such opportunities.

    That said, A Town Like Alice is one of my most favourite books ever. I love Nevil Shute, though he has dated a lot. One thing he seemed to have a fascination for was writing 'within a frame', ie writing as if he was another character telling the story, so his beginnings and endings often were nothing to do with the rest of the book. Curious.

  5. I'll take a slow beginning if I like the style and I will keep on reading until maybe page 150, but if nothing happens by then I'll put it down.
    However, if I don't like the style and nothing interesting actually happens, I'll put it down.
    I've only read one of your books Susanna and I didn't find the beginning slow at all, it was descriptive and helped the reader immerse in the scene and atmosphere but the story kept rolling forward, which keeps readers reading.

  6. I think Sarah's right - I'll take a slow beginning if I like the style, or the way the writer's creating the atmosphere. There has to be SOMETHING to grab me, to hold my interest, particularly these days when reading time seems so rare and precious. But it doesn't HAVE to be action.

    That said, I do tend to try and open with action, or at the very least tension, with mine, because I'm writing romantic suspense or thrillers. It excites me, so I write it.

    But I love atmosphere, and that will hold me in a book that doesn't start with a bang...

    Great post, Susanna. :-)

  7. I agree that it depends on the genre but I don't mind a slow beginning at all as long as there is something in the writing or story or character(s) to keep me interested. Then I'll persevere, as I did with Captain Corelli's Mandolin, for example.

    Great post and I hope that there is still scope for books which start slowly. I get the impression that a lot of authors seem to use a prologue to kick the book off, before backtracking to what they perhaps would have preferred was the real beginning.

  8. Susanna - I was thinking on very similar lines a couple of days ago, remembering a beginning that was one of the things I reread a certain book for:

    It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove, that started it. I won't pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairy-tale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers, and loses him in th forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon-flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon-blossom?

    A beginning like this is magic - it creates a place I want to be. I've taken that trail with Nicola Ferris so many time just because of the beauty of that setting, wishing I could really be there.

    While a beginning with a hook and action can draw me in, I prefer this style of writing.

    Too bad those of us who live on the west coast never get to the boards early enough to grab the glory. I love Nevile Shute and The Legacy (A Town Like Alice) is my favourite.

    Don't ever change the way you start your stories - yours is just the type of writing that I love.

  9. Mary Stewart: The Moon Spinners.

    And I got it on the fourth word of the exerpt.... :-D

    And her writing is, I think, exactly what I mean about atmosphere. I long to be even 10% as good, one day.

  10. *raises hand*

    I love me some slow beginnings. I love taking my time, getting to know the story and the characters-- then I feel more fully invested in their trials and tribulations.

    I love writing that way, but it's my downfall and I've had to curb those tendencies somewhat. Maybe in the long run, it makes me a better writer-- learning to balance the leisurely and the more active prose.

    Great post!

  11. Oooo great post. I am not good with slow beginnings or long descriptive pieces. I think I was scarred for life after having to read 'Cider With Rosie' at school and refusing to finish it after his two page description of the kitchen floor.

    However if the voice is compelling enough I will keep going.

  12. It's so nice to know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

    Sofie, I was actually thinking of including that passage in my examples! Mary Stewart is a goddess, IMO. But see, she manages to keep a leisurely beginning interesting by weaving in a subtle bit of foreshadowing, so that from her first sentence we're all wondering what it was the egret started..

    I try to do that, too, when I can. I love foreshadowing, but I tend to follow it, as she does, with backstory or scene-setting, so the overall effect is still slow-moving, by today's standards.

    Here are two more of my favourite Stewart openings -- know where they're from?

    1. '"Nothing ever happens to me." I wrote the words slowly, looked at them for a moment with a little sigh, then put my ballpoint pen down on the cafe table and rummaged in my handbag for a cigarette.'

    2. 'My lover came to me on the last night in April with a message and a warning that sent me home to him. Put like that, it sounds strange, though it is exactly what happened. When I try to explain, it will no doubt sound stranger still. Let me put it all down in order.'

    I think what I love best about these quieter beginnings is the classic sense of storytelling -- they make me want to brew a pot of tea and snuggle up beneath a blanket and prepare for an enthralling tale, as though I were a child again and my mother was settling in to read me a bedtime story.

    But then again, unlike Biddy, I didn't have to read 'Cider With Rosie', so I remain unscarred :-)

  13. Nothing ever happens to me - first Mary Stewart I ever read! My Brother Micheal. And of course the lover one is Touch Not the Cat!

    Susanna I agree with you completely about Mary Stewart - she's my comfort author.

    I didn't read Cider with Rosie till I was an adult and learnt the art of skipping. ;)