Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Opening lines: dialogue and addressing the reader

Welcome back to the writing advice series on opening lines, in which I try to take apart exactly what makes a first line tick in a way that's likely to make a reader want to pounce on the second line. Part one (focused on exposition and physical movement) is here if you're stopping by for the first time.

Dialogue: 

Beginning a story in the middle of a conversation has the advantage of dropping the reader directly into a character's stream of thought and opening with a rhythm of sentences spoken and returned. The characters are discussing some topic, whether it's important or not, and often end up establishing a central conflict of the story or revealing something startling. Even if the conversation is mundane, it can establish the relationship between those characters, and that is not to be underestimated.

Awkward: "I am a socially awkward mandork." (from Infinity)

No. This is an unpleasant attempt to establish personality and slang, but it comes off as an obnoxious twelve-year-old writing in his LiveJournal. Bear in mind that slang always dates itself quickly,  and that self-pity is never attractive or fun. Coming from a teenage boy, the only possible source of this slang, it's all the more grating. If a character is genuinely suffering right from the start, that's fine, but make sure to convey it in a way that gets across something interesting or funny about the character in question.

Decent: "There's a terrified child down there." (from Kris Longknife: Mutineer)

It's hard to put a finger on why this one doesn't work, but part of it is that the effort feels blatant. A child is in danger somewhere below the speaker, so the people in the conversation are in some way elevated, up on a mountain/hillside or in a shuttle or spaceship. That's not a bad way to start, but opening with a threat to a child feels like a demand for attention, as though we're being prodded with the human reflex of wanting to care about children in danger.

Eventually there will be a full post on this, but to me the goal of a good first sentence is sprezzatura, a nonchalant air that makes it seem as though every smooth action is effortless and unrehearsed. Behind the scenes, the author is going to sweat and cry and bleed over exactly how to say things, but the reader shouldn't be able to detect that at a glance. That first line needs to be the person lightly holding the attention of half the party off in a corner-- demanding the reader's attention with ploys, or trying to yank at the heartstrings, is akin to shouting over the music to make sure that people can hear.

Good: "There are places you can go," Ariana tells him, "and a guy as smart as you has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen." (from Unwind)

This works, though not quite as well as it could-- unfortunately for both the world at large and writing, places where people are unlikely to live to eighteen without careful planning are common enough that this tells us very little about the setting (which ends up being interesting enough). For all we know, this boy could be about to be drafted, trying to avoid a plague....it's intriguing, but open-ended in the wrong way, where there are so many possible answers that it's hard to care which one is the truth because there's so little data. Establishing a threat to life and limb early on can be a great move, and it almost is here, but there's not quite enough zest to make it really stand out.

Good: "By God! He's killed himself!" (from The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack)

On the surface, this pair shares the problem of the previous sentence-- it's dramatic in a way that seems calculated to draw attention. Furthermore, ending two sentences in a row with exclamation points is normally tiresome verging on sinful. If a sentence is exciting, the reader can probably figure that out without the aid of excessive punctuation. Here, though, the speaker feels honestly stunned by this turn of events, and that's enough of a point of intrigue to chance another sentence or three. It's not perfect, but it's compact, and that's often helpful in making the reader willing to read a bit more to establish context.

Good: ""Watch the next keyhole, Ariane, that bastard's going to try to force a scrape-- or worse!" (from Grand Central Arena)

This one goes for a similar type of drama to what we've already examined, since Ariane is being told that she's endangered-- a moment of consideration reveals that she's in motion, perhaps in a race or contest of some sort, and that her opponent may not intend to be sporting about it. That creates some tension, but "watch the next keyhole" manages to hit the sour spot of conveying danger while being just unclear enough to demand a second reading of the sentence-- as a general rule, prodding the reader to circle in place instead of charge onward doesn't work at such an early stage.

Better: "Do you think me easier to cozen than my sister? Some say your kind are fallen angels, or in league with the devil himself." (from Midnight Never Come)

This opening line does a lot of heavy lifting in an unobtrusive space. Without even reading the back of the book, we know that this character is living in a world at least several centuries older than the present day. The general structure of the line feels formal, but the word "cozen" is the fingerprint here, the signature on the canvas-- no one in the present day says that unless he or she is performing something Shakespearean. With careful attention to syntax and a single word, we've got our feet halfway under us and ready to run. This is part of why exposition-heavy opening lines can so easily feel stiff; you can accomplish so much by picking the right vocabulary for the world.

Vocabulary aside, there's an interesting situation here: the speaker knows that the person she's addressing has spoken to her sister, and that the person here is absolutely not to be trusted. He or she doesn't know exactly who or what his person is, only that the group or species here is powerful, dangerous, and in some way difficult to understand.

Best: "You told a two-thousand-year-old oracle to prove it," Hank kept pace beside me, nursing his bloody nose with a handful of fast-food napkins I'd pulled from the glove box earlier. (from The Better Part of Darkness)

This one earns a grin without trying. We already know that this is a magic, since there's an ancient oracle-- we also know that the person being addressed isn't terribly awed by that fact, and thus may not be good with authority or temper control. Hank, whoever he may be, has also just been punched, presumably as a result of this character's demands that an oracle prove something. The person being addressed is also treating a bloody nose with fast-food napkins rather than formal bandages or letting Hank stop to rest while he cleans up, so the two may be walking away in a hurry from whatever confrontation just happened. There's a general impression of speed, tension, sass, and carelessness that makes it much easier to root for the main character just because there's clearly never a dull moment when he or she is around.

Addressing the reader:

Having the narration address the reader or listener directly is a tricky move because it means swinging a stick directly at the fourth wall and hoping that the glass falls in an artistic cascade instead of hitting the reader's foot on the way down. It can be wonderful at establishing an intimate tone, making this as-yet-unknown narrator into a storyteller who wants nothing more than to lean forward far enough to grip your collar and drag you bodily into the story. If it's done poorly, it comes off as slightly awkward at best and pretentious at worst.

Stiff: Listen. The Sancturary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary. (from The Left Hand of God)

This feels like it almost works, and I want to like it, but the narrator is very....intense, with sort of a wild-eyed flavor that doesn't gel with the attempted critique of names here. It sits there on the page with attempted forward momentum and doesn't do much with it. The meta-knowledge here is that the intense narration drops away after a page or two without a proper transition or scene break, and that's a problem. Continue the story as you mean to go on, at least for a brief and clearly defined interlude; introducing a tone or stylistic experiment and then just dropping it tends to make the reader's transition into the book harder.

Using the short sentence to draw attention to the long one works, though; the sentence after Moby Dick's "Call me Ishmael" is long, in preparation for the ship-eating, semicolon-laden monstrosities of later passages, but no one forgets that short sentence. This style is akin to a staccato note introducing a clever guitar riff, and it can be really lovely if it's done well.

Decent: My philosophy's pretty simple-- any day nobody's trying to kill me is a good day in my book. (from Darkfever)
This isn't bad, though it shares the problem of seeming to try a little too hard. In its favor, though, it does establish a bit of cynical and embittered character tone and draw some attention into why this person is so often targeted for death. It demands attention, but it's hard to tell here whether it can hold on to that focus.

Better: Here's the thing. Every two-bit Tom and Dick on this glorified mudflat thought prostitution was legal in Las Vegas, but that's never been true. (from The Taken)

This uses the trick discussed above of pairing a short sentence and a long one, but it does so to better effect. Opening with "here's the thing" and then explaining a common misconception gives the impression that this speaker is explaining a point that's come up over and over again before, correcting an assumption that everyone makes even though they ought to know better. This person knows his or her way around Vegas, understanding it in the style of a native or frequent visitor rather than a casual tourist.

An opening like this also establishes writing style-- more on that next time, but look closely at "two-bit Tom and Dick" and "glorified mudflat." This speaker isn't entirely at home in the present day, and the vocabulary choices here point a bit to the early twentieth century with a slightly cynical and gritty feel, edging into the noir that it's soon revealed to be.

Better: The sun was going down by the time they decided to hang me. (from Giant Thief)

This is the sort of attention-snatching that actually seems to work. The main character is facing a hanging, but we know that the issue was up for some sort of debate-- the "they" here, presumably a group that the speaker has angered, took until sundown to choose that. They could have been deciding against mercy, or debating other fates, but the line is presented calmly enough that the reader wants to answer two questions at once-- specifically, what the speaker did to deserve this fate and whether he or she managed to escape. It's tense and just a hair funny, and that's rarely a bad spot to start a novel.

There's no best in this category yet, but I'll be coming back to these posts over time and writing more to expand on these points--feel free to drop me a line with suggestions.

Next time, I'll cover openings that focus on more general philosophical reflections about characters and their worldviews. I'll also look at opening sentences that seek to establish the writing style before all else, using that vital early space to build a specific mood and method of telling instead of focusing on the characters or scene itself right away.

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