I suggested to a writer friend the other day that all of the words his editor had so viciously and heartlessly ripped out of his new book would make several great blog posts. So taking my own advice, here is an opening that never was:
Book publishers want every book to start with a blockbuster opening line that leads off a smashing first paragraph at the beginning of a stunning chapter one that grabs the audience by their collective hearts, minds or other appropriate body parts. It’s just the way things are expected to be done in the publishing business.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." You may never have actually read a Tale of Two Cities, but I’ll bet you recognize that famous opening line.
Then there is that story about a big albino fish. Hundreds of thousands of high school and college students have dashed their heads on the shoals of Moby Dick, never to reach the final chapter. Yes OK, he was not a fish; a big white wet mammal. The point is the story opens with no mention of whale nor ship nor mad ship’s captain. Moby Dick begins with "Call me Ishmael."
Perhaps the most ludicriously infamous opening line: "Twas a dark and stormy night" actually" does begin an 1830 novel. A novel now remembered for those six words and nothing more. This iconic line now stands for every overly dramatic attempt to do exactly what every publisher wants you to do with the opening of every book—write a memorable first line!
Now should your story begin quietly or slowly, you won’t have an exciting opening, well then you use a flash forward; drop the reader into an exciting scene from later in the story. A hot sexual liaison would be a real grabber, a sudden gory murder even better. Seems violence sells better than sex and you don’t loose the moral majority of readers with a murder but you might with a tawdry Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer or Tiger Woods.
The key to the flash forward is, of course, the impending flashback. At the penultimate moment of your over-written flash forward, when the hook is set and the reader is putty in your literary hands, you flash back to the beginning of your story. You know the lines, the one’s that make you cringe and think: Ah shit, now we have to hear about the childhood.
"Bob grew up on a sprawling family dairy farm in the dreary hinterlands of Iowa." Now we have to hear about Bob’s mom and dad and don’t forget Aunt Rachel. Does everyone skip ahead at this point or is it only me? I mean we all know that Bob’s story doesn’t get interesting until he arrives in Singapore, so do we really need the details of the 5 AM milking regime back in Iowa?
"Millie was a quiet, bookish child; who had never ventured beyond the hedge at the end of the crushed limestone drive." Now that’s a bit better, the crushed limestone drive at least gives us the sense that the writer is going to be visually entertaining, but still – inevitably here come Millie’s parents and her dog Sissy too. The fact is that some really great stories are simply really slow starters.
All of this by way of saying that my story does not begin with a bang, a boom or a thump of any kind. This story begins in Las Vegas, just west of the Strip on the other side of Interstate 15, at the Extended Stay Hotel on Valley View Drive.