Starting a new chapter today reminded me of the constant challenge of beginnings. In a universe far, far away, when I taught classes at TAFE, WEA and SA Writers, I would work with writers on beginnings, using examples of famous novel openings like the following:
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” – Paul Auster, City of Glass
“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” – Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” – Alice Walker, The Color Purple
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
“Mother died today.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger
“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.” – Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life Of Bees
“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.” – Laura Whitcomb, A Certain Slant of Light
So, openings to novels and chapters, for me, must have something for the reader, something enticing, informative, mood creative. Out of curiosity, today I went back over the three manuscripts in this series and grabbed the existing opening lines to compare:
“Marc rubbed his thick stubble, his fingers tracing the long white scar running from his left eye to his collarbone.” – Tamesan’s Song
“Kevan limped onto the jetty, scars pulling against his skin, reminding him the past was close.” – Chasse’s Song
“Masha saw the shape appear against the white peak of Jenjaka Mountain and rose from his chair, his knees complaining at being made to move.” – Jaysin’s Song
The openings are deliberately designed to link the writing style and mirror similar content. All three men are watching, anticipating arrivals or changes. There are references to scars and arthritic or damaged knees, perhaps to suggest worlds with a history or trouble or war. All three characters are not central characters (Marc and Masha are very minor players in the stories). Each suggests a world in motion, one where the characters are living before the reader arrives. The sentences/paragraph that follow each opening line establish time, place and mood.
I also thought it would be interesting to grab the unedited opening lines to the last four chapters I’ve written in the current project to see what I’m doing:
“‘We are foreigners and women,’ Laseen reminded Jaysin.”
“Jaysin trailed in the wake of the black garbed Karudarteta along a wide corridor that penetrated deeper into the Imperial Palace.”
“He focused, whispering the phrase Tam taught him.”
“Two black robed servants and eight Kermakk soldiers marched across the dock toward the barge in the dawn light and crisp air.”
Each opening line leads the reader into the events taking place. In the first, as Jaysin prepares to use a disguise to reach the leader of the Kermakk Empire he is reminded of the oppression of women and strangers. In the second, he is being led into a sacred unknown. The third is a reminder of his magical skill and capacity to learn. The fourth sets a situation that is to unfold in the chapter. Yes, all four will be edited and change by the time the project is done.
Although not strictly true for every opening I create, I like to take the reader directly into action, an event, a conversation so the reader is immersed and wants to know what is happening or will happen as a result. Where appropriate or useful, the chapter opening will offer connections with events in the previous chapter, as does each example from Jaysin’s Song.
Story openings and chapters are reader hooks and connectors. If effective, they keep the reader engaged and/or remind them of what has happened so far and hint at what might happen next. They can establish action, plot, character, mood and setting succinctly.
The project is now at 73,000 words – almost three-quarters done. I was aiming at 10,000 words of writing or more this week, and made 8,000, but it’s a fortnight filled with family birthdays, so maybe I was being overly ambitious. Either way, it’s been a good week.
Writing is my passion. Ideas, opinions, beliefs, experiences expressed through language - through words and images - pervade and create my life. Writing is my voice, my soul, my self. My dream is one day writing will sustain my life...