I first began to theorize about how stories were constructed when I was at school. I remember a particular book (please do leave its title as a comment if you know which one I’m referring to because I’ve long since forgotten it) which decreed that a story should begin with an explosion and then work its way up to a crescendo. To a young teenage mind interested in the art of writing, it sounded exciting and I took it at face value. Of course I know now that I was taking it far too literally.
Applied to an action novel (‘explosion’ here taken to mean any extreme, sudden and disrupting event), this type of opening tells the reader to expect a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride – perfect for an adrenalin junkie. It’ll grab them from the first sentence and make them want to read more. The opening sequences to Bond films are collectors’ items in themselves and fans are always keen to see what dire predicament our hero will find himself in before the opening credits.
But this type of opening doesn’t sit well with many other genres. The whole point of most dramas, romances, tragedies etc are that they build up to a single crescendo – i.e. the ‘energy pattern’ (for want of a better phrase) is very different to the ‘hold on to your seats’ storyline. Even if it’s a tale of star-crossed lovers which has plenty of ups and downs along the way, these are normally led up to and not ploughed into from the outset.
So what did the word ‘explosion’ really mean in a general sense?
It is, of course, referring to the requirement for the opening 2 or 3 paragraphs to be attention-grabbing and every novel, short-story or other work of fiction must have them. Unlike non-fiction where you might well be fortunate enough to possess a captive audience, no-one, not even a famous bestselling author has any predetermined right to expect people to buy their book.
Traditionally writers have had publishers to fall back on whereby a battle-hardened editor or their reader would carefully consider the opening scene and decide if it passed muster. Nowadays, with Kindle and all the other forms of self-publishing, authors are left to live or die by their own pen. As a consequence, it only takes a quick scan of the lower ranking books on Amazon to see why they’re in that position. While some have been dropped for lousy content or bad writing, how many are simply being passed by because the opening section ‘doesn’t grab’ buyers?
While there’s clearly no one way in which a novel should be begun (and, if there were, who’d want to buy them?), there are standard type openings which are more or less dictated by the genre. I’m going to look at these over the forthcoming weeks and discuss each one in some detail.