Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 7, 2024

Start with a Bang: a Personal Journey

by James R. Preston

Close up photograph of a line typed by an old fashioned typewriter with a black over red ribbon. The line reads "Once upon a time..."

“A beginning is  the time for the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”

Princess Irulan
The Manual of Mauddib

The Princess had it right, and so did Frank Herbert when he chose her quote to open the magnificent Dune. Welcome to 

Start with a Bang: a Personal Journey through Openings Old and New

First let’s set some limits. I’ll talk about books I like, or know about. Most of the books will be genre fiction or pop lit. We’ll limit ourselves to fiction since writing the opening to A History of Spoon Collecting has a different set of problems. Hmmm. Ok, there’s one book here that I hope is fiction. Stay tuned. 

In an age of instant books, digital Samples delivered at the click of a mouse, and the AI’s helpful, “You might also like . . . “ (and don’t you just hate it that the AI is right so often) does anybody stand in a bookstore aisle reading the first page before deciding to buy? I think the answer is contained in the question. You can look at two dozen Samples in the amount of time it takes to walk from Mysteries to Science Fiction. So yes, the first few words are still extremely important. 

“I poured a few drops of an ‘87 Mondavi Chardonnay into her navel and leaned down to slurp it out 

Jennifer’s eyes closed and she purred. “Do you like that?” she breathed. 

“Of course,” I said. “Eighty-seven was an excellent year.”

Lawrence Sanders McNally’s Secret

This opening tells you a lot about the story that follows. It says up front that it’s a lighthearted tale, and that if navel-slurping is not, so to speak, your cup of tea, this one’s not for you. Contrast this with — 

“They found me in the gutter.”

Mickey Spillane, The Girl Hunters 

Ok, here you clearly have a no-holds-barred tough story with Mike Hammer, as tough a protagonist as ever strapped on a 45. 

Both openings tell the prospective reader that it’s a first-person story; both give a pretty good idea of what to expect. 

“On February 24, 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples. As usual, a coastal pilot immediately left the port, sailed hard by the Château d’If, and boarded the ship between the Cap de Morgiou and the island of Riou.

“At once (as was also customary) the terrace of Fort Saint-Jean was thronged with onlookers, because the arrival of a ship is always a great event in Marseille, particularly when the vessel, like the Pharaon, has been built, fitted out and laded in the shipyards of the old port and belongs to an owner from the town.”

Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo 1844 — 1846

Times have changed and with them the way writers entice you to read their work. Here Dumas invites you to settle down, perhaps with a glass of wine, because this is going to be a long story, full of rich detail. He’ll get you to the end, but it will take a while, so enjoy the ride.  

“A MAN WITH BINOCULARS. That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night.

Lieutenant Roger Shawn must have found the binoculars difficult. The metal would be cold, and he would be clumsy in his fur parka and heavy gloves. His breath, hissing out into the moonlit air, would have fogged the lenses. He would be forced to pause to wipe them frequently, using a stubby gloved finger.

He could not have known the futility of this action. Binoculars were worthless to see into that town and uncover its secrets. He would have been astonished to learn that the men who finally succeeded used instruments a million times more powerful than binoculars.

There is something sad, foolish, and human in the image of Shawn leaning against a boulder, propping his arms on it, and holding the binoculars to his eyes. Though cumbersome, the binoculars would at least feel comfortable and familiar in his hands. It would be one of the last familiar sensations before his death”

Michael Crichton The Andromeda Strain

All right, confession time. At the outset of this personal trip I said I was limiting my selections to fiction and, while that is true, Andromeda Strain is fiction dressed, at least in the Introduction, in the somewhat stodgy three-piece suit of a government report describing a “five day crisis,” I imagine some readers who picked up the book expecting dashing heroes wielding ray guns as they fought off a bug from outer space were surprised, to say the least. Here Crichton wants to immerse you in what appears to be real science, and much of it is. 

“NOVEMBER 14, 01:33 A.M.

THE BRITISH MUSEUM

LONDON, ENGLAND

HARRY MASTERSON would be dead in thirteen minutes.

If he had known this, he would’ve smoked his last cigarette down to the filter. Instead he stamped out the fag after only three drags and waved the cloud from around his face. If he was caught smoking outside the guards’ break room, he would be shit-canned by that bastard Fleming, head of museum security. Harry was already on probation for coming in two hours late for his shift last week.”

James Rollins, Sandstorm

Rollins does several interesting things in this opening. First, he sets the time and place precisely. Second, he introduces a character and at once tells you he’s going to die, so don’t get too attached to him. Viewpoint: omniscient. Tone: pretty serious. You get all of that in less than a minute of reading, and readers who notice such things — like you after reading this essay — will be prepared for Rollins’ breakneck pacing. 

This next one is fiction, I think, or it might be a true account of the wildest trip to Vegas ever, layered with exaggeration. 

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I said something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded, maybe you should drive” and all at once the car was surrounded by bats. . .:

Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Thompson at once tells you this is going to be a wild ride, told from the POV of an unreliable narrator, by his own admission under the influence of a multitude of uppers, downers, screamers, zonkers and you name it.. (I’ve driven that stretch of desert many times and never encountered the bats.) But it grabs the reader because they know there aren’t swarms of bats attacking cars on the highway.

“Even if she hadn’t been the last person to walk through the turnstile at Warren Street tube station, Jack Barker would have noticed the tall, slender woman in the navy blue, thigh-length jacket with a matching pleated skirt short enough to reveal a well-turned ankle. She had what his old mother would have called “bearing.”A way of walking, with her shoulders back and head held high, as she pulled on her black gloves while managing to hold on to a somewhat battered black document case.”

Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs

“The tavern was awash with blood. Cidra Rainforest saw splashes of crimson everywhere—seeping from a gash in a man’s forehead, staining the front of another’s shirt, trickling from still another’s mouth. Glancing down, she saw that there was even a spatter of blood on the hem of her early-evening surplice robes. To Cidra the delicate yellow-gold fabric spun of the finest crystal moss was not just soiled but frighteningly scarred.

She was surrounded by a scene she had never before experienced, never even been able to imagine, and she found herself incapable of coping with it. It wasn’t just the sight of so much blood that held Cidra immobilized with shock. All around her the vicious fighting continued unabated, even though Cidra knew that by now the combatants must be experiencing unutterable pain. Yet they raged on. The violence of it horrified her.”

“Grunts, obscene oaths, and desperate shouts filled the long, low tavern hall. One man had been knocked unconscious by a deftly swung tankard of Renaissance Rose ale, but no one paused to help him. Rather, everyone was participating in the free-for-all with an air of what Cidra could only describe as lusty enthusiasm. No one was lying in a fetal huddle, whimpering on the edge of insanity, as Cidra would have expected, as indeed she herself would be doing had she not been using every ounce of her disciplined training to control herself. The scene around her was incredible. It was, she thought, just as the novels had described it.

A large, scarred, brutally strong hand clamped around Cidra’s arm, shocking her out of her stupor.”

Jayne Ann Krentz Sweet Starfire

This one’s subtle. At first glance it’s the same old “innocent hottie in a bar fight about to be rescued by the hero,” but look again; Cidra’s reactions are not what the cliche calls for. She’s not afraid. Her only thought is for the pain the combatants must be feeling. Yes, this opening drops you right into the action, but it raises many questions.

Full disclosure: I have not read all of Sweet Starfire; this Jayne Anne Krentz title was suggested by my wife and editor Nancy, but when I read it and gave it some thought I realized it was something special. Starfire is now in my “stack” of books to be read.

And we’ll close with perhaps the greatest opening of them all. 

“Once upon a time . . . .”

Start by sharing an opening you like and tell us why. Feel free to share the opening to something you have written. Here, I’ll go first. ‘I was folding Kandi’s underwear when the home invasion began.” That’s how I start Pennies For Her Eyes.

I think Princess Irulan would approve your effort to get the balance right at the beginning by this bit of study. Now it’s your turn. 

* * * * * *

About James

Portrait photograph of James R Preston wearing a black t-shirt. The photo is taken outside against a partly snowy background.

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley. 

Find out more about James at his website.

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14 comments on “Start with a Bang: a Personal Journey”

  1. Thank you for an insightful walkthrough of opening attributes. You have provided much food for thought ... in a thoughtful way!

    Here is a 'beginning in progress' for a piece of flash fiction:

    Elder salivated. He sat on tender hooks for the teasing delivery of
    what he expected would be nothing short of gripping revelation.

    Across the low-lit, hollow room, the needle seductively rode the
    grooves of hard vinyl and scratched its way into a sound meant to
    sate a crippling hunger. Elder curdled in haunted euphoria...

    Well, it's a beginning of sorts [smile].

    1. Wow, Jennifer, what an opening! It definitely made me want to read on. Your opening raises questions and points forward. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about flash fiction?
      Thanks for sharing this!

      1. Mr. Patterson, Thank you for your comments and question. I am just learning about flash fiction. Although wildly defined in various circles, I think it safe to say it is story in 1000 words or less. I am attracted to flash fiction, because for me it feels familiar as I have written mostly poetry to date. And I believe poetry and 'micro' fiction have much in common. [smile]

  2. James, thank you for your analysis of these first lines. I love studying the first lines of books and found your evaluations insightful in an unexpected (to me) eye-opening way.

    My current WIP is the first draft of book three in my Fellowship Dystopia series. It begins like this:

    It should have been easy to find her murderous sister.

    Miranda Clarke glowered at the diner’s grumbling mechanical dishwasher. She had plenty of motivation to find her younger sister, but finding Irene Earnshaw, formerly the wife of the Prophet and the Fellowship’s Lady of the United States wasn’t as easy as Miranda had hoped. She assumed Irene had help. Irene had rich and powerful friends in Baltimore. Lots of them.

    That Irene had powerful friends wasn’t a surprise. The two of them were the daughters of a Fellowship Councilor, and had met many of the Fellowship’s elite members after all.

    I hope it delivers the message that this story is about an alternate America where families are divided and the two sides will clash soon.

    1. Lynette, this opening is definitely an attention-getter. I found it had me wanting to read more, and then wanting to go back and start with Book One. It has the feel of one of those lines that pop into the a writer's head and just won't go away until they are on the page. I wonder if that is how the first sentence came to you? To answer your question -- yes, the opening sets up an America that is a theocracy, with conflict brewing. Thanks for sharing it on Writers in the Storm.

      1. Thank you, James. I'm delighted you had that reaction to my beginning. Lol. Yes, that's exactly how that first sentence came to me. I had started in a slightly different place. Once that line came to mind, I had to use it.

  3. Thanks for asking!

    Here's the beginning of the prequel short story, a gateway to Andrew O'Connell, the rising Irish actor of his generation, and Pride's Children:
    ----
    St. Paddy’s Day, Grafton Street, Dublin

    I made sure I bumped into her St. Paddy’s Day. In the harsh broad daylight, middle of Grafton Street with the Dublin shoppers and tourists out in full force.

    She shimmered, rosy-cheeked, kissed me softly on the cheek. “Hello, Andy.” She’s the only one, other than the lads and me ma, I ever let call me ‘Andy.’ None of the other girls. But I was so sure she was the one. I’d met her our first film acting together, and grabbed her up. Even ma, back on the farm I could’na wait to leave, liked her. “Don’t let this one go,” ma said. But I was bloody stupid.

    “Something’s different.” Her copper hair was cropped short, modern, pixyish. It glinted, reflected the sun crooked. Five long years with me it’d been breast-length, silky. Me fingers ached at the memory.
    ...

    This loss underscores the beginning of everything for Andrew, good and bad and stratospheric.
    https://prideschildren/too-late-prequel/

    I hope readers will want to continue the journey, which will be about as long as GWTW when it's over.

    1. Ooooh, Alicia, this one is subtle. Andrew "makes sure he bumps into her. . . " -- at first it slips by but then you realize how much this first line conveys. He wants to see her, but it has to appear accidental; it can't be planned. Immediately the reader wants to know what has happened to their relationship. His fingers ache at the memory of touching her hair -- Andrew's in pain. Also, points for handling the dialect well and not overdoing it. Nice Job!

  4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

  5. Wonderful examples of great beginnings. Here's the opening of my current WIP, a fantasy novel that is Book 4 in the series.

    Hammevaro reined in his horse outside the gates of Meridor. He ran his hand through his mane of blond hair and wondered what to do with the box he carried. He looked around. Where would it do the most damage? He decided not to take it into the city. What if one of the guards wanted to see what it contained? They would be in their right to do so. After all, they had to safeguard the trade, and the city did stand close to the border with Erian.

    Charged with taking this strategic city, Hammervaro paused next to the river on the road leading towards the Erian pass. He placed the box he carried in the meadow at the side of the road. The mage smiled. The Master had plans. Meridor had never been defeated, but today that would change.

    1. V. M. thanks for sharing but you're making me crazy -- what's in the box?? All kidding aside, I think you have a well-done, detailed opening that will draw readers in. Clearly you have done a great deal of world-building and it shows. Thanks again.

  6. Hi James!
    These first lines are great examples of setting the reader up for good reads.

    Your post is timely! I've written my character's backstory and am about to write the opening for a short story - adjacent to a novel I'm revising.

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