This opening often sounds like normal life, but… You get a feeling you are in a tall tale almost right away.
So today we’re going to examine the technique of opening a story called “cool story bro.” It’s not necessarily that different than Wait, What? and one sort of bleeds into the other. In fact, after your Wait, What? opening, you need a good “Cool story, bro,” to keep it going.
The idea is to start your character off in something interesting enough that you don’t want to quit. I just made a trip to the library, down three flights of stairs to look for They Walked Like Men, which has one of my favorite Clifford Simak openings, which I know I can’t remember properly. Unfortunately the library is in great need of more shelves (as all our libraries tend to be, right?) and has boxes in front of where I suspect Simak’s paperbacks are. This would normally not be an issue, but I’ve been under the stomach flu for almost 24 hours, and bending and pushing would not be good. So I grabbed a couple of Simak hardcovers, which, if memory doesn’t deceive me, substantiate this.
Oh, here it is, this kind of does, from Our Children’s Children by Clifford Simak:
Bentley Price, photographer for Global News Service, had put a steak on the broiler and settled down in a lawn chair with a can of beer in hand, to watch it, when the door opened underneath an ancient white oak tree and people started walking out of it.
It had been many years since Bentley Price had been astounded. He had come, through bitter experience to expect the unusual and to think but little of it. He took pictures of the unusual, the bizarre, the violent, then turned around and left, sometimes most hurriedly, for there was compettion such as the AP and the UPI and an up and coming news photographer could allow no grass to grow beneath his feet, and while picture editors certainly were not individuals to be feared, it was often wise to them mollified.
But now Bentley was astounded, for what was happening was not something that could easily be imagined, or ever reconciled to any previous experience. He sat stiff in his chair, with the beer can rigid in his hand and with a glassy look about his eyes, watching the people walking from the door. Although now he saw it, it wasn’t any door, but just a ragged hole of darkness which quivered at the edges and was somewhat larger than any ordinary door, for people were marching out of it four and five abreast.
The thing is this is not exactly major action. The guy is having a beer and something happens in front of him. The something is bizarre enough you have to reassure the reader that he’s not insane, hence his little biography.
This particular form of “cool story bro” is both difficult as heck to do — I often feel like my characters flounder till page ten, wondering if they’ve gone crazy, at least in fantasy — very suited to science fiction, and very easy to pitfall into boring despite the opening. You have to keep the mundane details really light, then go back to the strange. The mundane details are needed to reassure the reader you know what you’re doing. But you don’t want to overdue it. I recently walled a book because right after the intriguing opening there were pages and pages and pages of the character going on about memories of his Victorian childhood. Maybe it’s all related and ties back masterfully, but if I fall asleep while reading it, you lost me.
Because Simak often has an absolutely normal guy in a recognizably normal mid-century life as his hero and he often introduces completely bizarre elements to this normal life to cause the story to happen, he does this opening a lot.
If I remember the opening of They Walked Like Men right, it starts with “I’d have stepped in the bear trap, if my landlord hadn’t been a skinflint.” Then explains that the light was dim, and he dropped his keys, so he had to kneel to find them, and that’s when he saw the rug was cut, and as he poked at it with something (don’t remember what) he saw the bear trap. And then the bear trap rolls itself into a dark ball and rolls away under its own power. By this time, you’re hooked, because it’s a bizarre situation and you can’t doubt it, so you want to know what happens next, right?
It’s easier to do this with action, as the beginning of Monster Hunter, quoted here, shows. https://madgeniusclub.com/2018/02/07/many-kinds-of-beginnings/
And sometimes it’s just a matter of keeping the reader interested enough, then punching them with something that makes them sit up.
Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters:
Were they truly intelligent? By themselves, that is? I don’t know and I don’t know how we can ever find out. I’m not a lab man; I’m an operator.
With the Soviets it seems certain that they did not invent anything. They simply took the communist power-for-power’s-sake and extended it without any “rotten liberal sentimentality” as the commissars put it. On the other hand, with animals they were a good deal more than animal.
(It seems strange no longer to see dogs around. When we finally come to grips with them, there will be a few million dogs to avenge. And cats. For me, one particular cat.)
If they were not truly intelligent, I hope I never live to see us tangle with anything at all like them, which is intelligent. I know who will lose. Me. You. The so-called human race.
For me it started much too early on July 12, ’07, with my phone shrilling in a frequency guaranteed to peel off the skull. I felt around my person, trying to find the thing to shut it off, then recalled that I had left it in my jacket across the room. “All right,” I growled. “I hear you. Shut off that damned noise.”
“Emergency,” a voice said in my ear. “Report in person.”
I told him what to do with his emergency. “I’m on a seventy-two hour pass.”
“Report to the Old Man,” the voice persisted, “at once.”
That was different. “Moving,” I acknowledged and sat up with a jerk that hurt my eyeballs. I found myself facing a blonde. She was sitting up, too, and staring at me round-eyed.
“Who are you talking to?” she demanded.
I stared back, recalling with difficulty that I had seen her before. “Me? Talking?” I stalled while trying to think up a good lie, then, as I came wider-awake, realized that it did not have to be a very good lie as she could not possibly have heard the other half of the conversation. The sort of phone my section uses is not standard; the audio relay was buried surgically under the skin back of my left ear-bone conduction. “Sorry, babe,” I went on. “Had a nightmare. I often talk in my sleep.”
“Sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, now that I’m awake,” I assured her, staggering a bit as I stood up. “You go back to sleep.”
“Well, uh—” She was breathing regularly almost at once. I went into the bath, injected a quarter grain of “Gyro” in my arm, then let the vibro shake me apart for three minutes while the drug put me back together. I stepped out a new man, or at least a good mock-up of one, and got my jacket. The blonde was snoring gently.
I let my subconscious race back along its track and realized with regret that I did not owe her a damned thing, so I left her. There was nothing in the apartment to give me away, nor even to tell her who I was.
I entered our section offices through a washroom booth in MacArthur Station. You won’t find our offices in the phone lists. In fact, it does not exist. Probably I don’t exist either. All is illusion. Another route is through a little hole-in-the-wall shop with a sign reading RARE STAMPS & COINS. Don’t try that route either—they’ll try to sell you a Tu’penny Black.
Don’t try any route. I told you we didn’t exist, didn’t I?
The super secret agency that no one can find is, I think a universal “oh shiny.” Well, it’s mine at any rate. When I hit the secret entrance, I was hooked. It was a cool story bro, and I was going to follow it to the end.
So the recipe is this “normal world” “disruptive elements” “bona fide” “strange enough to hook.
Shake and bake in any order, but don’t go too far into mundane world, because it makes you lose track of what’s cool about the story and the reader might — shudder — put the book down.
BTW far be it from me to criticize the work of the master, but that first paragraph of Puppet masters reads like an hesitation in the cut to me. He wasn’t sure he had enough strange to hook you in the beginning, so he added the thing about “are they intelligent” to orient you on the aliens. I’m not criticizing, really, I mean, what do I know? And it hooked young me right enough. BUT if I did that, it would be a sign of hesitancy, a sign of fear I’m not hooking enough. Probably come across as such too, because I don’t have the strength of Heinlein. So, try to avoid those.
And then some of your cuing elements might backfire. The mobile phone identified this as science fiction and interesting when it was written, now of course, young kids might think it was an adventure at a western boys school. But try to see it as that time, and how that would introduce the “Cool story, bro” element. Because it did. Without it though, the normal world goes on a little too long before we get to Mars and the element of great interest.
Between Planets, by Robert A. Heinlein.
I: New Mexico
“Easy, boy, easy!”
Don Harvey reined in the fat little cow pony. Ordinarily Lazy lived up to his name; today he seemed to want to go places. Don hardly blamed him. It was such a day as comes only to New Mexico, with sky scrubbed clean by a passing shower, the ground already dry but with a piece of rainbow still hanging in the distance. The sky was too blue, the buttes too rosy, and the far reaches too sharp to be quite convincing. Incredible peace hung over the land and with it a breathless expectancy of something wonderful about to happen.
“We’ve got all day,” he cautioned Lazy, “so don’t get yourself in a lather. That’s a stiff climb ahead.” Don was riding alone because he had decked out Lazy in a magnificent Mexican saddle his parents had ordered sent to him for his birthday. It was a beautiful thing, as gaudy with silver as an Indian buck, but it was as out of place at the ranch school he attended as formal clothes at a branding—a point which his parents had not realized. Don was proud of it, but the other boys rode plain stock saddles; they kidded him unmercifully and had turned “Donald James Harvey” into “Don Jaime” when he first appeared with it.
Lazy suddenly shied. Don glanced around, spotted the cause, whipped out his gun, and fired. He then dismounted, throwing the reins forward so that Lazy would stand, and examined his work. In the shadow of a rock a fair-sized snake, seven rattles on its tail, was still twitching. Its head lay by it, burned off. Don decided not to save the rattles; had he pinpointed the head he would have taken it in to show his marksmanship. As it was, he had been forced to slice sidewise with the beam before he got it. If he brought in a snake killed in such a clumsy fashion someone would be sure to ask him why he hadn’t used a garden hose.
He let it lie and remounted while talking to Lazy. “Just a no-good old sidewinder,” he said reassuringly. “More scared of you than you were of it.”
He clucked and they started off. A few hundred yards further on Lazy shied again, not from a snake this time but from an unexpected noise. Don pulled him in and spoke severely. “You bird-brained butterball! When are you going to learn not to jump when the telephone rings?”
Lazy twitched his shoulder muscles and snorted. Don reached for the pommel, removed the phone, and answered. “Mobile 6-J-233309, Don Harvey speaking.”
“Mr. Reeves, Don,” came back the voice of the headmaster of Ranchito Alegre. “Where are you?”
“Headed up Peddler’s Grave Mesa, sir.”
“Get home as quickly as you can.”
“Uh, what’s up, sir?”
“Radiogram from your parents. I’ll send the copter out for you if the cook is back—with someone to bring your horse in.”
Don hesitated. He didn’t want just anybody to ride Lazy, like as not getting him overheated and failing to cool him off. On the other hand a radio from his folks could not help but be important. His parents were on Mars and his mother wrote regularly, every ship—but radiograms, other than Christmas and birthday greetings, were almost unheard of.
“I’ll hurry, sir.”
“Right!” Mr. Reeves switched off. Don turned Lazy and headed back down the trail. Lazy seemed disappointed and looked back accusingly.
As it turned out, they were only a half mile from the school when the ranch copter spotted them. Don waved it off and took Lazy on in himself. Despite his curiosity he delayed to wipe down the pony and water it before he went in. Mr. Reeves was waiting in his office and motioned for him to come in. He handed Don the message.
It read: DEAR SON, PASSAGE RESERVED FOR YOU VALKYRIE CIRCUM-TERRA TWELVE APRIL LOVE—MOTHER AND DAD.
Don blinked at it, having trouble taking in the simple facts. “But that’s right away!”
“Yes. You weren’t expecting it?”
Don thought it over. He had halfway expected to go home—if one could call it going home when he had never set foot on Mars—at the end of the school year. If they had arranged his passage for the Vanderdecken three months from now . . . “Uh, not exactly. I can’t figure out why they would send for me before the end of the term.”
Ideally your element of “strangeness” or if not writing SF/F your element of “cool interest” (In mystery it would be either a crime or something puzzling, and in romance, of course, the arrival of the interesting one. Only for this opening to work, it must be really startling, whatever it is.) should come in no further down than the first page. It’s what gets the rube…. er…. readers to turn the page.
Your turn. Go no more than 250 words (and I’m being generous. Most first pages are 100.)
Tell me a cool story, bro.