Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Of Bodies and Beginnings

Barbara here. Beginning writers are constantly being given bad advice. Every “how-to” book and  “ten tips to successful crime writing” list is full of it. Authors, agents, and editors all think they hold the key to a successful book. And indeed, there is good advice in those how-to books, but there are also clichés, tired formulae, and cheap gimmicks. How is a writer to know the difference and to know how to tease out those bits of wisdom that work for their own unique writing process?

A case in point – how to write the perfect ‘Page One’. This past month, as part of National Crime Writing Month, the CBC held the Page Turner Challenge, in which writers were asked to write the opening 250 words of a novel. CBC was looking for “tension, terror and tantalizing characters”. At Bloody Words Mystery Conference in Toronto this past weekend, a whole panel was devoted to opening scenes.

Writers, both novice and veteran, know that the first page, indeed the first sentence or paragraph, is crucial to capturing the reader’s interest. We know that busy, jaded agents and editors face hundreds of manuscripts a week and rarely look beyond the first page if the story hasn’t caught their interest in that time. We know that readers, perusing books on the shelves or sampling excerpts online, will make a similar decision based on reading the first paragraph or two, as well as the jacket blurb.

That’s a terrifying prospect. As a writer, you have laboured over nearly 100,000 exquisitely chosen words, but they may all be for naught if the first 250 somehow fail the test. You polish them and repolish them until they are raw, as brutal or edgy or funny or poignant as they can be. But polishing is not enough. What those 250 words say about the story you’re about to tell and about the characters they will meet, is the important thing, regardless of how exquisite the words are. Because during that first thirty seconds the reader or editor spends with your book, he is asking “Does this story interest me? Does this character intrigue me?”

That’s the real job of the opening scene. It is not necessarily to create tension, terror or tantalizing characters. It is to draw the reader in with a promise of a good story. But crime writers are constantly told to start the story off with a bang. Jump right into the action and move it forward quickly. Don’t dwell on setting, atmosphere or back story. In fact, some pundits advise dumping the body onto the first page, or at least the first chapter. Novice writers struggle to fit their story into this strait jacket, often tossing the body onto the page with no lead-up or logic, or putting in a creepy prologue to make sure the reader is hooked before embarking to the real meat of their story. Established writers, they are told, can get away with a more subtle or oblique opening, but a beginning writer needs to set the hook right away.

“Rules” like this drive me crazy. There are times when the story cries out to be started with a bang, or a body. It races forward from that high-impact moment and rarely looks back. But there are other stories that call for subtlety, for atmosphere and for shadowy hints of menace. Stories where we have to meet the characters and build up sympathy or concern for them before hurling them over the cliff.

Page One opens the door to the story, so it ought to start at the beginning. It doesn’t have to terrify, but it should intrigue or touch. It ought to start at the moment, or just before the moment, when a character’s life begins to change. It can present a situation slightly off balance – a day starting wrong, a small inconsistency or mystery – so that the reader says “Uh-oh, what’s going on?” or “What’s going to happen?” A question is posed that cries out for an answer. Not just any question, but one with emotional impact that we can care about. Who is the sad young woman standing in front of your father’s grave? Why is the teenager running panicked down the street?

That question is what pulls us into the story, along with the character we meet on that page. If they aren’t there on Page One, all the bodies and bangs in the world won’t make most readers turn the page.


Vicki Delany said...

So right, Barbara. I hated it when the master class leader on the CBC Canadawrites page said you need a body on page one! As a matter of fact this is the topic of my workshop at Scene of the Crime this year.

Rick Blechta said...

Very much to the point, Barbara, and so very true. An excellent post that should be handed to someone writing or contemplating writing their first crime novel – as well as to those of us who are 'hardened criminals' at this game.


aaron said...


Thank you so much for this post! As a reader, the absolute worst experience is to have every crime novel start with a body...I want variety and originality, definitely not the strait-jacket novel you so aptly describe. Every story must cohere and stand on its own merits, and imposing a body on every crime novel on the first page is not the best for every story. I understand that there's a tiny, little-known novel on an independent press by an obscure author called Girl with the Dragon Tattoo...and it starts with a man who is sent pressed flowers. How can a crime thriller be effective and start without a corpse?? Maybe there's something to be said for the larger story rather than solely the microcosm of the first chapter... Thanks again for an excellent, astute post!

Dinah Forbes said...

Well, I was one of the panellists at that session at Bloody Words, and I didn't advise, nor did my copanellists advise, that any writer should start the novel with a bang or a dead body. Our repeated advice was to start at the beginning of the story, not in advance of it, not with background, not with setting that's not seen though one character's POV, but with some action. Not neessarily any big, dramatic action -- it could be someone blinking, come to that, or staring out the window -- but something to transport the reader instantly into the story. Sorry, Barbara, but a lot of wannabe writers think they have to ease the reader into the story and take that to mean that they should faff around for a few paragraphs before introducing a character or an action. They shouldn't.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Great post Barbara--and I agree with Aaron. In fact, a lot of the books seem to ricochet off the walls and create an unreal feel instead of tension.

Liz said...

Great post, and thank you so much. As one half of a novice writing partnership, your advice couldn't have come at a better time :-)

Liz Lindsay
aka Jamie Tremain

Mario Acevedo said...

Great post. So what works? Who knows? I don't like these public "chopping block" exercises because they aren't much more than entertainment. I can think of dozens of successful books that broke the "rules."

Joanne Carnegie said...

Thanks for this, Barbara. I'm particularly glad to see you refute the canard that a crime novel "must" start with a dead body on the first page. If everyone began with a corpse straight off the bat, it would be very tedious indeed.