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
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.”