Full disclosure: I struggle much more with endings than beginnings. My approach in fiction is to establish a clear voice that sets the tone for the rest of the story. Sometimes that means first person and sometimes that means third person limited. Either way, I pick the narration that makes sense for the story and the characters.
I think it might be best to start out by putting the first 2 pages of my JEWISH NOIR story “Quack and Dwight” on the page and then discuss the text after that:
I considered not answering when I saw Shirley Chung’s name on the caller ID. We’d been friends forever, going back to high school AP classes. She eventually went to law school while I got a PhD in psychology. Last time I took on a client for her, he was a six-foot plus brute named Aaron. His junkie mother had dumped him with her abusive, drug-dealing brother when he was five. Shirley, the LA County prosecutor in Palmdale, was hoping that the fourteen year old would testify against his uncle, considering the multiple bruises he had on his backside from disciplining. The boy, however, had developed a paper-thin temper that craved for any opportunity to explode. I discovered this when he lunged at me and broke my nose.
I have the basic elements of a story opener in my story “Sucker’s Game”—a character, in a setting, with a problem. But when I set out to write this dark little tale of 1970s suburban fear and loathing, I had some hurdles I had to address.
All beginnings are hard.
All right, so I didn’t actually read that sentence in the Talmud. I read it in Chaim Potok’s In the Beginning. But Potok says it comes from the Talmud, and he knows more about such things than I do. Anyway, the sentence seems appropriate for a blog post about the first two pages of a story in Jewish Noir. And it definitely says something true about the challenges all writers face when they begin a new project.
Ah, beginnings. What could hold more promise than a blank page? What could hold more terror?
For me, beginnings are crucial. As a reader, when I open up a book or story, I’m waiting to be pulled in—yanked in, really—and if my interest isn’t captured quickly, I set the story aside. Too many things to read, too little time to waste on things less than compelling.
Therefore, as a writer, I feel great pressure to ensnare my readers from the get-go and force them to keep on reading.
SOMETHING’S NOT RIGHT is one of my ‘bogusly autobiographical life in writer’s hell’ stories, which are stories featuring a writer with just enough bogusly autobiographical details to get my cousin and other friends calling me after they’d appeared in the past to make sure everything is okay and my wife is still alive. What makes this story different than these previous ones is that the bogusly autobiographical details hit closer to home, and the writer isn’t given a fictional name, but goes nameless. In fact, readers might start wondering how much of this story is true, and whether I could be this unnamed narrator.
The most challenging part of writing a story, whether it’s a short-story or War and Peace, the Sequel, is getting the opening just right. Editors and the reading public are a tough audience that wants immediate reading gratification. In the first few passages, if the writer doesn’t dazzle the reader while setting the tone, identifying the stakes, placing the tale in time and place, and delivering some beguiling characters, then the reader will move on to something else. So, how to begin?
When I wrote the first two pages of my new novel I had three goals in mind – besides the obvious one of starting the damned thing, of course.
First, I wanted to tell the readers something very specific about my protagonist, to prepare them for some of the odd turns the book would take. You see, GREENFELLAS is a novel about a mobster, but it is not a typical crime story. It’s a comic tale of a top Mafiosi who, upon becoming a grandfather, decides it is up to him to save the environment for his little granddaughter.
The Maltese Falcon opens with a quick description of Sam Spade (“a blond satan” and “steep, rounded slope of his shoulders”), followed by the arrival of a visitor. The visitor is Miss Wonderly. We get a brief description of her, some telling details of Spade’s office (the limp cigarettes in the ash tray and the flecks of ash on his desk) and then Miss Wonderly begins to explain the problem that brought her to Spade. All of this occurs quickly. By the end of the second page, we have characters, setting, and problem.
To draw readers into a story, I try to reach into their heads and get a good grip on their curiosity. I figure if I do that and hold on tight, they’ll stick with the story until I satisfy that curiosity. To put it another way, in the opening paragraphs, I try to plant questions in the minds of readers that are intriguing enough they’ll keep reading until their questions are answered.
Problems. Every writer has them, not least an opening that grabs a reader by the eyeballs. Setting, mood, point of view, conflict all packaged and launched just so, in two pages. But in a short story, two pages will have plowed deep into the proceedings, a sharp hook and set-up combined, every line serving both masters. Get the balance wrong, and the reader slips off that hook.
I joined the Fantasy_Writing group on Yahoo in June of 2009. I had always thought about writing and the challenge of putting pen to paper and producing a novel. Something with compelling characters, a suspenseful plot and cliffhanging chapters that would make my readers take a quick look at the clock in the post-midnight light and continue on.
Many of the characters in my stories are very real to me. They have minds of their own. I often talk to them, especially when I hit a problem. They answer me.
Jesse Damon, the protagonist in my Jesse Damon Crime Novel series, appeared fully formed in my mind and, in his unassuming but persistent way, suggested that his was a story that needed to be told, and I was the one who needed to tell it.
July 7, 2015
Damned If You Don’t (Glenmere Press) is a dark traditional mystery set in the Catskills. The book features Hannah Fox, a community activist raised in the sixties on picket lines and peace marches, who battles an eminent domain scam that threatens a friend’s land and ends in murder.
I love to read. I’m also a busy mom, so I don’t have much time, or patience, to invest in a book that doesn’t hook me from the first couple pages. What I’m most drawn to in a book isn’t the setting, or pretty writing, or even the premise of the story. What draws me in and keeps me reading is the main character. So, when I choose a book or a new series to read, I often skim the first two pages to see if the author can introduce me to a character who I want to get to know better. Someone who I’ll care about and will want to travel with for the course of the story. Because isn’t that what a book is? A journey of sorts? And who wants to be stuck on a long trip with a boring travel mate?