Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
Opening lines are difficult to craft well. That’s why they should usually be left until the revision layers. Why, you ask? Because you could spend a year of Sundays trying to craft the perfect sentence instead of writing the rest of the manuscript.
Opening sentences are crucial in Chapter One. They give your reader a taste of what is to come. They are worthwhile in the rest of your chapters if you are willing to invest the time. A good opening sentence raises a question or poses a challenge the reader can’t walk away from.
Closing sentences are equally important. They are what keep your readers turning the page to read one more chapter, then another and another until they reach the end. The final chapter’s final line should stick with your reader, offering them one last finger lick of deliciousness to polish off the fiction plate.
Let’s take a look at a few examples from books on my To Be Read pile. Which would you read first?
The Devil’s Bones, Larry D. Sweazy
Opening Line: Tito Cordova sat on the porch steps, staring at the barren tomato field and empty migrant shacks across the road. Everyone had left for Florida, or Mexico, to spend the winter. He hugged his knees to his chest, trying to keep warm.
Closing line: Welcome home, Tito. Welcome home.
We start with Tito; we end with Tito. The story comes full circle.
Never Tell, Alafair Burke
Opening Line: It has been twenty years, but at three-fourteen this morning I screamed in my sleep. I probably would not have known I had screamed were it not for the nudge from my husband — my patient, sleep-starved husband, who suspects but can never really know the reasons for his wife’s night terrors, because his wife has never truly explained them.
Closing Line: George had said not all questions needed to be answered, but maybe some questions didn’t need to be asked. Maybe she was still getting to know herself after all.
We begin with an unanswered question and end with the thematic statement that not all questions should be asked.
Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
Opening Line: I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.
Closing Line: I didn’t want to meet him, and I didn’t want to introduce myself. I just wanted to be some woman, heading back home to Over There That Way.
We begin with a ghoulish description. The ending sentence probably makes sense once you've read the book. It would have worked better for me if it had also been suitably ghoulish. However, both lines are in the main character's unique voice.
The Sounds of Broken Glass, Deborah Crombie
Opening Line: He sat on the steps of the house in Woodland Road, counting the bank notes he’d stored in the biscuit tin, all that was left of his mum’s wages. Frowning, he counted again. Ten pounds short. Oh, bloody hell. She’d found the new stash and pilfered it again.
Closing Line: He felt as if he were sleepwalking. Slowly he picked up the envelope, lifted the unsealed flap, and eased out a single sheet of paper. It was a letter of transfer. And his chief superintendent had signed it.
This book begins with backstory and ends with a line offering a view into the main character's future. The last line works better for me than the first, though the first line hints at a problem.
The Other Woman, Hank Phillippi Ryan
Opening Line: “Get that light out of my face! And get behind the tape. All of you. Now." Detective Jake Brogan pointed his own flashlight at the pack of reporters, its cold glow highlighting one news-greedy face after another in the October darkness.
Closing Line: Jane smiled as she picked up her tote bag. I have a story to cover. “They obviously made a mistake.”
The opening and closing lines are uttered by different characters but reference the eagerness of reporters.
Read through your completed manuscript. Write down the first and last lines of each chapter. Are they intriguing? Can you make them stronger?
As I watched yet another body count trend upward in a recent movie, it inspired me to list the top five things that bore me as a viewer/reader. These clichéd and overused tropes are supposed to wow, but leave me snoring. This list applies to fiction as well as movies.
1) Gratuitous sex scenes, aka sex with a stranger.
It’s stupid. Why should I care? The encounter between two people who truly long for each other, who have been kept apart then finally come together, is far more intriguing. Couples who have a history that reunite or make up are more interesting than random rutters.
2) Random violence.
Killing one character I've grown invested in is more compelling than blasting away with an automatic weapon downing characters I don’t know or care about. It's a fact of human nature that genocide in a distant land doesn't register until the battle is brought to a person's front door. The closer the character who dies is to the protagonist, the higher the story stakes. As much as I love cozy mysteries, there's almost a disconnect when it comes to the victims. The best cozy mystery makes me care that the victim died.
It’s a turn off. As much as I appreciate special effects makeup artists, they can use their talents to make cooler effects that don’t involve rolling heads or spurting arteries. In books, I really don’t need paragraphs of gruesome details. I scan past them. Same with torture and battle scenes. They make me cringe. I'm a grown-up. I have experienced loss and pain. I get the drift. The reality that people are bestial and kill each other is disgusting and horrifying enough. We never followed Anne Frank to the concentration camp, but the reality of the horror of that story scarred me for life. Why? Because I grew to know and like her and that made what she went through personal rather than abstract. If you want to impress upon your readers true horror, make it personal.
4) Drawn out panoramic shots.
Whether it’s a prolonged movie clip or endless paragraphs describing the setting in excessive detail, I have a tendency to fast forward or skim read past them. Take a picture; it lasts longer. Have you ever sat through an endless slideshow of someone else's vacation? Make description short and make it count, then move on to the point of the scene. It's even better if the setting has an impact on the scene.
5) Adults or teens that behave like out of control toddlers.
Book or movie, I have no patience with these characters. I wouldn't hang out with them in person. I don't waste page time with them either. If this character is the protagonist, I put the book down and it goes on my discard pile.
What tropes inspire you to flip pages or quit reading?
Today's post features a guest appearance by Luke Murphy, author of Dead Man's Hand. He explains how to make an antihero your protagonist by providing him with solid motivation. Luke Murphy describes his protagonist, Calvin Watters:
The four most common character conflicts in stories are: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, and man vs. himself.
The single most common character conflict in suspense/mystery novels is man vs. man. This is usually seen through serial killers, murder investigations, assassination plots, etc. One character is battling against another character in the story.
There's plenty of this in DEAD MAN`S HAND, but I also wanted to add another element to entertain readers.
The central theme of DMH is the plot built around framing Calvin Watters for murder. Calvin spends the story evading the cops, as well as a hitman, while trying to solve the crime and prove his innocence. (Man vs. Man, right?)
But I truly believe that the major character conflict in my story is Calvin vs. himself.
Calvin Watters was on his way to NFL stardom when a sudden, selfish decision destroyed any dream he ever had. He remembered when the rich had welcomed him into their group as a promising, clean-cut athlete bound for glory. Now he was just an outsider looking in. Just another thug.
Pain bolted through his right knee, but the emotional pain from a shattered ego hurt even worse. He was the only one to blame for USC's humiliating loss and his own humiliating personal downfall.
The press, always ready to tear down a hero, had shown no restraint in attacking him for his egotistic, selfish decision and obvious desire to break his own school record. One minute he was touted as the next Walter Payton, the next he was a door mat for local media.
Looking at him now, no one would believe that back then he was a thousand-yard rusher in the NCAA and welcomed with open arms in every established club in Southern California. Hell, he had been bigger than the mayor.
That the resulting injury had ended his college football career and most importantly, any chances of a pro career didn’t matter to anyone. By making the wrong, selfish, prideful decision, he’d made himself a target for the press and all USC fans.
The devastating, career-ending knee injury wasn't the quarterback's fault for missing the audible, or the fullback's fault for missing the key block. It was his and it had taken him some time to understand and accept responsibility for it.
After he spent three years building a reputation as the toughest collector in Vegas, no one even knew he'd been one of the greatest college running backs ever. To them, he was just “The Collector.”
Now Calvin has to rebuild his life and his future, eliminating the thoughts of his downfall, picking himself up, dusting off, and trying to live a respectable life he can be proud of.
But has his time as a leg-breaker made him corrupt beyond redemption?
Luke Murphy lives in Shawville, Quebec with his wife, two daughters and pug. He played six years of professional hockey before retiring in 2006. Since then, he’s held a number of jobs, from sports columnist to radio journalist, before earning his Bachelor of Education degree (Magna Cum Laude). Murphy`s debut novel, Dead Man`s Hand, was released by Imajin Books on October 20, 2012.
DEAD MAN'S HAND "A fast, gritty ride." www.amazon.com/Dead-Mans-Hand-ebook/dp/B009OUT2ME
For more information on Luke and his books, visit: www.authorlukemurphy.com
The expression one foot out of the door is used to express a condition wherein your character has mentally but not logistically moved on. It could be a job, a family, a relationship, or a place. They have already envisioned an alternative reality and are anxious to explore it. Certain personality types live one foot out of the door. For others, it creates a true dilemma. The conflict arises when they are not free to leave just yet.
It’s so hard to stay when you desperately want to leave.
1) In a Romance, one partner may be ready to move on. He or she may have envisioned what it might be like to be with someone else. Perhaps they have that someone already picked out. This creates the will they stay or will they go push-pull.
2) In a Mystery, this dynamic creates internal conflict when Dick must solve one last case when he'd rather be spearfishing in Fiji. His partner may be eagerly anticipating a promotion and chafing at having to finish the case.
3) In a Literary or Young Adult Coming of Age tale, this dynamic forms the battleground of the young adult striving for autonomy while still coping with parental expectations and restrictions. Every parent and teenager has dealt with this rocky road from tweenhood through college. It could be told from the parent’s or teen’s point of view.
4) In a Historical tale, Dick may be trapped in a city or small town while dreaming of moving west. He is eager to go, yet something forces him to stay. Perhaps he dreams of being a sailor but must stay and deal with his sick parent while his peers take off on great adventures.
5) In a Thriller, this can affect Dick’s dedication to solving the overall story problem. He may be ambivalent about the cause, the people involved, or his role in it because he'd rather be somewhere else.
Use internal conflict scenes and internal narrative to illustrate the character’s impatience, impaired decision making, fantasizing about the new reality, anxiety, anger, and frustration. He can step forward then step back until a crisis forces the issue. You can close the door on your character, preventing him from ever leaving or you can set him free, allowing him to slam the door behind him. The artistic choice is yours.