Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Reader's Choice"

Speaking strictly as a reader now, and not as a writer, I want to say a few things about the kind of advice that new writers are often given. I may be something of a unique reader, so for all of you who want to write, take my comments with a grain of salt. I know you need readers, not just one reader, not just me.

First, many recent writing guides suggest that starting with dialogue is a good idea. As a reader, I absolutely hate this. Most of the books I’ve picked up and put back down after a few sentences are ones that began with dialogue. Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is an example. Some writers can create truly excellent dialogue, but the fact is that I don’t care about what the character says until I begin to get a feeling for the inner nature of the character. That means, I need to see them acting, not talking.

Second, I’ve been told all my writing life that you never start a story with the weather.  As a reader, I absolutely love it when writers do this. Now, it needs to be good strong weather, and the character needs to be pitted against it, but—for me—opening with a character fighting against a storm, or freezing cold, or violent high seas instantly catches my attention and brings me into the tale. There is immediate intense conflict. Many of my favorite reads begin with the character facing off against nature.  Westerns often begin this way. Perhaps my favorite short story of all time, Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” begins this way. Note that, for me, a beating sun or a cold, dark night also constitute a form of weather. 

As far as openings that catch my attention, what do I personally like as a reader? A character placed in a strong setting with conflict looming, or at least with a question as to why the character is in this place. Here’s the opening to the book I’ve reread more than any other, To Tame a Land, by Louis L’Amour.  “It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted, none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, my pap and me.”

Here’s the first two lines of The Road, my favorite of Cormac McCarthy’s books:  “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.”

Here’s the opening paragraph of Teot’s War by Heather Gladney. It’s got everything I crave for an opening, and poetry too!  “Heat beat down on my shoulders, my face cloth. My armor dragged at the riding sores underneath. Little sparkles danced behind my eyelids, and the strains in my joints were cramping to knots in the muscles. It had been a long ride. A grating call made my shoulders twitch. The carrion crows, who glided after us day after day, were waiting.”




19 comments:

Cloudia said...

Instructive as always, Charles. Thank you

Lisa said...

interesting and really good writing, I wonder how does Gone With The Wind start, it must be the conversation they had on the verandah, but that book I read after I saw them acting and knew them well...

Vesper said...

I quite agree, Charles. The "rule" about weather is one of Elmore Leonard's but, like in the examples you're giving, he says that if it's for the character's reaction to the weather, then it's fine. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, thanks for visiting

Lisa, I've never read that book. I should give it a read. I don't think I have a copy. By the way, I tried to visit your blog but it says I have to be invited.

Vesper, yes, the character needs to be in there. Not just a description of weather. I agree with that.

eric1313 said...
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eric1313 said...
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eric1313 said...

I like novels that begin something like this...

The war kept dragging on like a plague.

Our early victories have been slowly choked out, and bitterly erased; the small victories we have managed since do little except sap our strength; an epilogue to the inevitable collapse we witness now.

The Dark Queen's forces - and those of her consorts - with slow sureness, and power augmented by dark arcana, draw ever tighter around Vingaard, that ancient seat of the knighthood. The peasants of the surrounding plains had long ago fled, or were now scattered bones along with those of their families, in muddy and scorched fields that once saw wheat and rye taller than the children of the forgotten good times, the times of peace now 100 years beyond the reach of memory of any who currently live. A fable that at once provides hope and mocks our efforts.

The war, and this world of unnaturally darkened skies and powerful storms and the hordes of ogres from the brooding mountains of the south, along with their terrible allies, the dragons, children of the Dark Queen, was all any of them could remember.

This is strongly reminiscent of how Legend of Huma opens. But it's my version having not read it in a long time. Mine, but not so much so that I would try to publish it professionally.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's good to know. I have started one story with a line of dialogue, but feedback told me it was a good line to use. The next two started with a leading line of action and I think were even better.
As long as a story doesn't start with paragraphs of description, I'll keep reading.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A great writer can make anything work. As for the rest of us...But I hate novels that begin with pages of dialog. I want the scene set and the character described through what he/she is thinking or doing. Not physical descriptions though.

Charles Gramlich said...

eric1313, I do like a fantasy story that begins with a good hint of history. It sets up conflict to come and really centers us in the setting.

Alex, I was looking at my stuff and found I've started one or two short stories with dialogue, but usually only a single line before something happens.

Patti, A little physical description of people goes a long way. I don't mind some.

oscar case said...

I had to go back and check how I started my latest, but it wasn't with dialogue. I re-read it and decided I liked it the way it is. Thanks, Charles.

jodi said...

Charles-for me it is more about the overall relevance. I do prefer to have the setting in my imagination first.

Sarah Hina said...

This is why I have an allergy to writing "rules."

Great examples, Charles. The Road is a favorite of mine as well.

Chris said...

Any post that tips a hat to "To Build a Fire" gets a thumbs-up from me. I love that story, and think about it particularly this time of year when I often find myself out in the snowy woods.

Riot Kitty said...

I love a story starting with weather also. It sets the scene.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I don't like novels opening with dialogues either unless I'm reading a short story or non-serious fiction, the kind meant to be read for fun and taken with a pinch of salt. Opening lines often decide whether I'm going to like the book or not.

Greg said...

All of those are great openings. My favorite opening line of all time is from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas: "We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold." (Pretty sure I'm quoting it right.)

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, i'm guessing my reading experiences as a kid shaped this kind of feeling on my part.

Jodi, yes, I like to be centered in a tale first thing.

Sarah, the Road was so bleak but I could not put it down.

Chris, such an awesome tale.

Riot Kitty, that's my feeling on it.

Prashant, that's very true for me.

Greg, I remember that opening line. Sets you up for a wild ride.

sage said...

Rules are to be broken... Weather can give us much more information (time of year, etc) and good dialogue does draw my interest as I wonder what the characters are talking about.