|Getting off to a good start|
|August 30th, 2013|
Alfred Hitchock said that it should be obvious what a film is about in the first three minutes – although I can’t find that quote anywhere on the net, so maybe I imagined it. Nonetheless, I still think it’s a good aim to keep in mind when telling stories.
I’ve heard some people bemoan the fact that many authors now take inspiration from film. In a film, you don’t have time to do a slow pan round a room, taking in every object, before the characters walk in, have their conversation and depart. The scene always starts a good way into the conversation, and usually ends long before it peters out. And you see just enough of the surrounds as is necessary to set the scene. So, personally, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for authors to emulate film in this respect. The time when writers would spend many pages describing a glen, say, before anything happened in that glen is probably over.
Similarly, writers are jumping into their stories much faster, providing the ‘hook’ or ‘grab’ within the first few paragraphs, not pages. Starting off a book by giving a long exhaustive history of your main character or characters might just lose your readers before you’ve got to your story proper. So why not start with that story proper, and feed titbits about the characters’ backgrounds as you proceed? That way, you let the reader learn about them in a slow accumulation of details rather than one long screed. Which, let’s face it, is how we build up our pictures of people in life anyway. And how we build up our picture of places, too, for that matter. We don’t learn everything about people or places in one big chunk.
Films since their beginnings have drawn from books. I don’t have figures for this, but I’d say the vast bulk of films are still adapted from books (and comic books more and more, these days). Early films would often start by showing the open page of the book it was adapted from. A narrator would read the first few sentences. The pages might even be shown to turn. Not many film adaptations show their sources so openly these days, but the lineage is still evident. So why shouldn’t authors return the compliment and take inspiration from film techniques, by jumping straight into the story, entering scenes late and departing from them early?
Here’s how my 2008 novel ‘Morse Code for Cats’ begins:
“Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
Not the beginning, beginning. No one cares that far back. Just the beginning of this story.
But it’s going to be hard to tell it right. The whole story, I mean. The whole story of that long year and a bit leading up to the millennium party, 2000, ’cause although not much happens in a pot-boiler kind of way, there’s still a lot went on. For as my friend Zane would say, ‘Sam, with young people, everything’s a drama – even life!’ ”
So there you have it! In the opening three paragraphs, I’ve given a demonstration of Hitchcock’s belief that you should know what a story’s about in minutes. I even tell the reader that the story is going to cover a year’s duration, and give a pretty strong indication that it will be about young people.
Here’s how a book of mine starts that I’m currently editing:
“They listen for hours. Nothing except the sounds of cockatoos and kookaburras. They open the trapdoor and peep out. They have judged it well: dusk. Their eyes wouldn’t have coped with full daylight, having been a month in their cellar. Rex looks around for his dogs. He can see mounds in the grass. Hauling his surviving dog, Soldier, up the ladder, he heads towards the shed. Kerrie calls after him, voice shaking.
‘Where are you going?’
He turns to her. ‘To get the generator working.’
‘But why would – ?’
‘Follow the plan,’ he cuts her off harshly. Then: ‘Kerrie.’
She stops. ‘Yes?’
There is nothing he can think to say.”
Again, I hope this opening similarly wastes no time in drawing the reader into the meat of the story. The story’s prologue (that month in the cellar) has been dropped. We get one or two hints of what that time was like later but, really, the story begins with them emerging.
Finally, here’s the beginning of another novel I’m nearly finished:
“The other day I sat right through a three-hour movie and couldn’t wait for it to start. Naturally, I don’t want the same said of this book. So let’s start. Straight away, I mean.
Once upon a time (because that’s how all fairy-tales should begin) there was a woman called Dawn who’d just turned thirty-nine two years running. It was the end of the eighties so she had big hair that looked liked the cat sucked on it. She wore bangle stuff round her joints, and stuff that goes with that kind of stuff. She was considered quite fashionable. She’d just walked into the foyer of a building decorated with the kind of art rich people buy. You know, crap.”
If only I could spend all my time just writing the opening paragraphs to books! But once you know the right place to start your story, you’ve got a much better chance of getting to the end. And the same with your readers.