Fast & Slow Beginnings

You know how much it’s stressed to have an opening to a story that hooks the reader making them want to read on? If nothing else, it’s crucial to make the first five pages compelling to attract the attention of the literary agent you’re querying.

I’ve become increasingly mindful of how I write the first chapter, and I usually rewrite it after typing The End to introduce foreshadowing I was unaware of as I set out. We all know that being a writer can detract from being a reader, as our radar is always on looking for techniques and tricks, guessing who the murderer is early on and which characters are going to become lovers.

Just recently though, I’ve read two novels that made me reappraise how to begin a story. One had an exciting start that places you in the cab of the protagonist’s pickup as she’s menaced by a charging elk. Will Dean’s Dark Pines deserves its favourable reviews and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel Red Snow.

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My heart raced reading the first few paragraphs, but once the crisis was over, the story slowed as the author set up the inciting incident of a body being found. Click on Look inside to see what I mean. It struck me that this was a false exciting beginning as if Will Dean had been advised by their agent to jazz things up!

Nothing wrong with that, I guess, and I might use the con myself for a future Cornish Detective novel. I still felt a bit cheated. Strangely enough, animals barely make an appearance in the rest of the story, just a couple of deer, crows and dogs.

The other novel that pulled the carpet out from under me has the opposite characteristics. The Cold Dish is the first story in Craig Johnson’s much-loved Longmire mystery series, adapted into a hit television series. I haven’t watched any of them, but one of my best friends, a discerning resident of Wyoming praises them to the skies.

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Craig Johnson

The opening of the novel mosies into sight like a laid-back drinker who’s quaffed four pints and is recounting a favourite anecdote of his to you after you’ve joined him at the bar. It’s as if you’ve known him all his life and he you, as he reacquaints you with who’s who and what’s what in his little town.

Granted, there’s mention of a dead body being found in sentence one, but that was reported by two ne’er-do-wells and is probably a dead sheep anyway, so let’s have another beer while the narrator continues his rambling story about local residents and police colleagues.

As a writing technique, it suits the character of Sheriff Walt Longmire, but it’s not designed to grab you by the throat. The Cold Dish was published in 2004—perhaps readers’ attention spans were longer back then—there’s nothing wrong with Craig Johnson’s writing, but I wondered if his relaxed approach would be allowed today. I think that his agent might ask him to add some gore to the opening.

My crime novels always feature the murdered victim in Chapter 1, either while still alive or when found as an abandoned corpse. I’m attempting to bond the reader with the victim, making them eager to know who the killer is and how my protagonist detective works things out.

Have you come across any stories that began in unexpected ways?

What’s the most exciting start to a story you’ve read?

And, the worst?

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