Something’s Happening Here
So, continuing our ways to open a story or a novel (yes, I promise after this, in two or three weeks, I’ll do possibly a hands on workshop on how to bring your readers up to date on a series with style and grace) today we come to “Something’s Happening Here” or, in other words, opening the story with movement.
Humans are like cats. They see movement, they follow. There is something that instantly rivets us to an action scene or even just to movement, but particularly undecided movement.
Because of course I didn’t prepare (you should forgive me, there have been things going on, mostly stomach flu. Better now, but it’s not conducive to working ahead) the one in my mind right now is Patricia Wentworth’s “Run”. It opens with the word “Run.”
It’s blind fog, a young man got lost in it, and is looking for directions. He enters some gates, a girl grabs at him, says “run” the first word in the book, and then the rest comes as flashback, as they run because someone is shooting at him from the fog.
This happens to be part of the main plot. The couple turn out to be the love interest, and the guy shooting at them is the villain. This is not ALWAYS so.
Action doesn’t need to be explicit, overt, running or shooting or something, though now I think about it, “I shot him” would make a bang up (ah!) first line. Might try it. It can be tense and riveting and “it’s happening.” You can get the feeling you’re holding onto a thread that leads to a massive ball of yarn. Take John Ringo’s Under A Graveyard Sky:
“AlasBabylon Q4E9,” the text read.
“Bloody hell.” And it really hadn’t started out as a bad day. Weather was crappy but at least it was Friday.
Steven John “Professor” Smith was six foot one, with sandy blond hair and a thin, wiry frame. Most people who hadn’t seen him in combat, and very few living had, considered him almost intensely laid back. Which in general was the case. It came with the background. Once you’d been dropped in the dunny, few things not of equal difficulty were worth getting upset about. Until, possibly, now.
He regarded the text from his brother and wondered if this was how morning walkers on 9/11 felt. He knew the basic code. Alas Babylon was a book about a nuclear war in the 1950s and survivors in the aftermath. The novel by Pat Frank was still one of the best looks at post-apocalyptic life ever written. And he and Tom had agreed that it was the best choice for a code indicating a real, this is no shit, general emergency. Not “I’ve got cancer” but “grab the bug-out bag and activate your Zombie Plan.” Which was why he wondered if this was the same feeling those morning New Yorkers had felt looking up at the gush of fire from the side of the Twin Towers. Disbelief, sadness, even anger. His mouth was dry, palms clammy, his sphincter was doing the bit where it was simultaneously trying to press neutronium and let go all over his seat. He felt all the cycles of grief go through him in one brief and nasty blast. Tom was not a guy to joke about the end of the world. Something had hit something or another.
Despite knowing it’d gone tits up, he hit reply.
The return message was immediate.
“Confirm, confirm, CONFIRM. Q4E9. CONFIRM!!”
The rest of the codes were the problem. Stacey and Tom were the crypto geeks. Of course, calling Tom a geek was a stretch. Nearly two meters tall and a former Australian SAS commando, the “General Manager for Security and Emergency Response” for the Bank of the Americas might have a background in crypto and enjoy the occasional alternative clubbing night. Geek was still a stretch.
Obviously, there’s no shooting or running here, but something is definitely happening, even if it’s only a phone message. AlasBabylon, for those of us who’ve read the book, immediately tells you it’s apocalypse. The character’s reaction will too. We’re in. We want to know what’s happening.
I have, once more, misplaced Friday by Robert A. Heinlein. That’s not exactly true, actually. Friday is a first edition, hard cover, so heaven knows where my husband has hidden it now, to prevent my creasing the pages.
Anyway, go and read that opening until “I killed him.” There is no overt action there, until you get to that line, but you know something is happening. She’s being followed. It’s tense. (Though it also packs a boatload of worldbuilding. Make notes of that, because same technique can be used to bring a reader up to date on a series.)
Most of the time, what happens is a central point of the story, but it could be a minor battle that you bring forward, so you can start the book with a bang. This is very useful if your opening drags.
Some of you know I wrote Darkship Thieves 13 years before it was published. It was my first science fiction novel outside my wretched first world I created at thirteen (and I didn’t know how to present that, so it read like fantasy.) It was also arguably my first coherent novel. But the first time I submitted it the action started on chapter 3. Before that, there was (I thought) very tense and meaningful action with a doctor’s examination and stuff. I think I lost most readers there.
I set it aside for two years, and then went back to it, and suddenly it was clear that those first two chapters weren’t needed, they could be summarized in running (literally running) and it needed to open with the third. Which is why it now opens with:
I never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in discovering the truth about the darkships. You always get what you don’t ask for.
Which was why I woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in my father’s space cruiser.
Before full consciousness, I knew there was an intruder in my cabin. Not rationally. There was no rationality to it. The air smelled as it always did on shipboard, as it had for the week I’d spent here – stale, with the odd tang given by the recycling.
The engines, below me, hummed steadily. We had just detached from Circum Terra – a maneuver that involved some effort, to avoid accidentally ramming the station or the ship. Shortly we’d be Earth bound, though slowing down and reentry let alone landing, for a ship this size, would take close to a week.
My head felt a little light, my stomach a little queasy, from the artificial grav. Yes, I know. Scientists say that’s impossible. They say artificial gravity is just like true gravity to the senses. You don’t feel a thing. They are wrong. Artificial grav always made me feel a little out of balance, like a couple of shots of whiskey on an empty stomach.
Even before waking fully, I’d tallied all this. There was nothing out of the ordinary. And yet there was a stranger in my cabin.
Okay, so that first paragraph is atmospheric (more on that later) but we get to the stranger in the cabin before the end of page 1. And that’s definitely “Something’s happening here” particularly when the narrator is a young woman.
You don’t need to start with part of the main plot, though. Of course I now can’t remember any who don’t — forgive me readers, for I am uncaffeinated — but I know there are some.
You can start with an amiable fight between two characters, or a bout of sparring, which turns out not to matter for the main plot. You can start with a race, and they’re catching up on him/her.
The important thing if the thing you start with is not the main in the book, is to remember to introduce enough of the main question/problem in between the action that when we realize the action isn’t the main thing, we still want to keep reading. It requires finesse, but it can be done.
Try it yourself. Is there a novel that you can open with “something’s happening here” by moving things around a bit? Give it a whirl. It’s irresistible.
Next week: These People!