THE COLD OPEN
It was a dark and stormy night. The ultimate cliche but I must confess, I'm fond of it. Who doesn't love a story that begins on a dark and stormy night? Both as a reader and as a writer, I have a great deal of respect for an opening sentence or paragraph that can really grab hold and pull the reader in. So many things can be accomplished in just a few words, including the creation of mystery and suspense. The tone of an entire novel or story can be effectively communicated in a single sentence. Sometimes a writer can win me over for life with just that one sentence. Two-fisted thriller writer Greg Rucka began his first novel, KEEPER, with this little gem: "Much as I wanted to, I didn't break the guy's nose." There's a certain tired whimsy in there to go along with the toughness. Hard-boiled fiction writers can almost always be relied on for such openings, and I love them for it. Dennis Lehane, whose Kenzie & Gennaro novels are my favorite
modern hard-boiled detective novels, began his first, A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR, with this: "My earliest memories involve fire." Simple, yes, but the lines that follow weave together various images of riot and war as a the narrator--a firefighter's son--leads up to an ugly revelation. There's elegance there, and enough mystery to be intriguing.
In A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Charles Dickens begins with the famous "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," but many forget that this is not the entirety of the first sentence. There's much more to the opening and while most of it is equally intriguing, it finishes rather flatly, with this: "the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." Yeah. Snooze, right? But Dickens has already caught the reader with the opening and that is more than enough to propel us forward with interest and curiosity. We're off and running. Or reading. You know what I mean.
My all-time favorite opening, and one of the greatest in the history of literature, comes from Shirley Jackson's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE.
"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."
I could come up with thousands of intriguing first lines from classic novels and stories, from modern bestsellers, and from little-known favorites of mine. Even if you've never paid much attention to the cold open, you have probably been influenced by it frequently and may have favorites of your own. If you're the sort who picks up a book in the store and reads the first few lines in order to determine whether or not you're interested in buying, then the cold open has been hugely influential in determining what you read.
Truth be told, I'm not sure how much other writers think about this. I don't remember ever having the conversation with any of my writer friends. All I can say is that I think about it, sometimes too much. I can't really begin a novel until I feel like I've got an opening that propels ME forward. That doesn't necessarily mean that each novel's first line is a home run, but it's got to feel right to me and at least meet the number one criterion...it's got to propel you forward to the next line. If it's also mysterious or intriguing or unsettling, all the better. My first novel, OF SAINTS AND SHADOWS, began this way: "Manny Soares was getting just a little sick of pushing the damn broom." Not bad, I think. A little passive, but it sets the tone and the scene right off the bat, so I'm happy with it.
My first line from THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN is one of my favorites. "The world was still solid and reliable that chilly October morning, but it would not stay that way forever. Or even for long." Better yet, from WILDWOOD ROAD: "The night of the masquerade was a kind of mad, risque waltz, the voices louder and the laughter giddier than anyone would have expected. That was the nature of masks." Tim Lebbon and I co-wrote a novel called THE MAP OF MOMENTS. I love the cold open from that one. "In Max's dream, Gabrielle still loves him. And she is still alive."
Sometimes the simplest openings are the best, though. Abrupt and direct. Many of my teen novels start with lines meant to snap the reader to attention. BODY BAGS began with: "Amanda Green died for a cigarette." PROWLERS starts with "The taste of a child's blood." From THIEF OF HEARTS: "Murder itself held no pleasure for him. It was what came after--that was what he lived for." From POISON INK: "Pieces of her are broken."
They're not all so abrupt. Honestly, looking through the shelf of my books here in my office, some of them are not very good or very interesting. Sometimes I've begun with dialogue or setting, whatever felt right at the time. But other times I've managed, I think, to set up scene and character and give a good, intriguing cold open all at once. I'm fond of the longer opening to HEAD GAMES: "Not long after dawn, two days before Christmas, Jenna Blake stood over the shattered, nearly unrecognizable corpse of the mayor of Somerset, Massachusetts, and took deep breaths to keep from throwing up." Actually, that one's maybe a little funny, too, which is good. It's not Dickens or Shirley Jackson, but it makes me smile.
My latest novel is the first in a trilogy that I've written under the pseudonym Thomas Randall. [Thomas Randall is the name of the writer who is the protagonist in my novel STRANGEWOOD...the opening line of which is thoroughly unremarkable]. For the cold open of THE WAKING: DREAMS OF THE DEAD, I sat for a long time, as I often do, just waiting for the right line to occur to me. Often that's exactly what happens, the words just popping into my head. Perhaps echoes of BODY BAGS were drifting around my head, because the line follows a model set up there. DREAMS OF THE DEAD begins with....
"Akane Murakami died for a boy she did not love."
Whether that one works or not...I'll leave up to you. If it helps, though, the scene does take place on a dark and stormy night.
Except of his book
Except of his book
Monday, September 28th: Little Willow at Bildungsroman
Tuesday, September 29th: Courtney Summers
Wednesday, September 30th: readergirlz
Thursday, October 1st: lecitans
Friday, October 2nd: Sarah's Random Musings
Friday, October 2nd: Steph Su Reads
Monday, October 5th: Books By Their Cover
Tuesday, October 6th: Kim Baccellia
Tuesday, October 6th: Book Chic
Wednesday, October 7th: Presenting Lenore
Thursday, October 8th: GalleySmith
Friday, October 9th: Just Blinded Book Reviews
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