Monday, February 11, 2013

10 Inspired Openings: Christine Johnson

Trying to write the opening line of a blog post ABOUT OPENINGS sucks. I’m just sayin’. Openings need a hook - I think everyone knows that. If you didn’t, well, you do now. It can be hard to find that perfect action moment that will suck in a reader while also letting the rest of the story flow easily from it. A regular breakfast in a regular house on a regular day, where nothing more exciting is said than “Please pass the orange juice?” Not going to work. Last breakfast in a regular house on moving day where nothing more is said than “Please pass the orange juice?” and the table’s surrounded by boxes? Much more potential interest. The reader doesn’t need an actual explosion, they just need a reason to want to keep reading. There’s also a fine line between dropping the reader into the middle of the action and leaving them there to drown. If things are too confusing, it doesn’t matter how many exciting things are happening. A good beginning balances all of these elements, and leaves the reader anxious to know what happens next.

Of course, the opening also sets the tone for the rest of the book. So if you’re writing a historical romance, it’s probably a better idea to open with a ball rather than, say, the alien mothership landing in the yard. If the action you’re opening with doesn’t fit the rest of the story, it’s time to go another direction. I find that my beginnings often have to be rewritten once I’m finished with a manuscript because as the story has grown and developed over the course of the writing, the formerly perfect beginning becomes off-tone or off-topic.

That said, all too often I see writers get stymied by their opening scene, and it paralyzes their writing process. Though it is true of all drafting, it is perhaps MOST true of opening scenes that the important part is getting it written. Once you can move into the story, it becomes easier to look back and see whether your scene needs a change of venue, or a different bit of dialogue, or whether it needs to be a different scene altogether.

One of my all time favorite beginnings is from R.J. Anderson’s novel ULTRAVIOLET:

"Once upon a time there was a girl who was special. Her hair flowed like honey and her eyes were blue as music. She grew up bright and beautiful, with deft fingers, a quick mind and a charm that impressed everyone she met. Her parents adored her, her teachers praised her, and her schoolmates admired her many talents. Even the oddly-shaped birthmark on her upper arm seemed like a sign of some great destiny.
        This is not her story.
        Unless you count the part where I killed her."


Immediately, you understand the tone of the book, and the sudden shift at the end makes it absolutely perfect.

In my own work, the opening for THE GATHERING DARK was the one I struggled with the most. Never have I rewritten a scene so many times. At one point, it started with a car wreck. Then it started in the school cafeteria. Eventually, I realized that the reader needed to see Keira at her piano, and so I gave her a job playing IN A RETIREMENT HOME and opened with that. Seriously. It seemed like a good idea at the time. No, I don’t know what I was thinking, either. Anyway, after many, many false starts, I finally put Keira at the piano in the department store at the mall, and things finally started to click. It still took a number of drafts before I was able to get all the right characters interacting in the right ways. Now, I’m thrilled with the way the book opens, but it was the only part of the entire novel that really was a struggle to write. I’m glad, though, because it made me think so much more deeply about the structure of opening scenes, and I know my writing benefitted from it.

Now. Go write a first line.

About the Author

I grew up in, moved away from, and finally came home to Indianapolis, Indiana. While I was in the “away” part of that adventure, I was living in Chicago, Illinois, where I went to DePaul University and met my husband. I majored in Political Science. For the record, Political Science is a totally useless degree. But it’s also totally fascinating and I loved studying it. I fall into that trap a lot. I graduated with about nine million extra credit hours because I was forever taking classes that seemed “interesting” instead of classes that I needed to fill requirements.

After college, I lived in Chicago for several more years with my husband. I had a string of jobs – some I liked, some I hated, but none of them ever stuck with me as a career. Writing is different. For this job, I could be a workaholic! Anyway, after several more years in Chicago, my husband and I moved back to Indianapolis. (We got tired of constantly looking for street parking in Lakeview.)

Now, I live in an old house in an old neighborhood with my husband and kids. I have too many books and a weakness for anything sweet. I love yoga and cooking, but I’m not much of a movie person. I like watching soccer, and always look forward to the first sweater-worthy days in the fall. But mostly, I like making things up and writing them down and having people read them. So, that’s what I do, and I’m very, very lucky to be doing it!

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About the Book

Keira’s hallucinating. First it’s a door hovering above the road; then it’s a tree in her living room. But with her parents fighting and her best friend not speaking to her, Keira can’t tell anyone about her breakdown. Until she meets Walker. They have an electric connection—and somehow it’s as if he can see the same shadowy images. The more Keira slowly confides in Walker, the more intense—and frightening—her visions become. Trusting him may be more dangerous than Keira could have ever imagined. Because Walker is not what he appears to be—and neither are her visions.

Keira’s hallucinating. First it’s a door hovering above the road; then it’s a tree in her living room. But with her parents fighting and her best friend not speaking to her, Keira can’t tell anyone about her breakdown. Until she meets Walker. They have an electric connection—and somehow it’s as if he can see the same shadowy images.The more Keira slowly confides in Walker, the more intense—and frightening—her visions become. Trusting him may be more dangerous than Keira could have ever imagined. Because Walker is not what he appears to be—and neither are her visions.

Buy The Gathering Dark on Amazon
View The Gathering Dark on Goodreads

10 comments:

  1. You make a great point about keeping the opening simple, yet giving the reader a reason to keep reading. :)

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  2. I think opening lines of a story is my favorite part even over the ending. If it comes with a hook there is great anticipation of what will come next.

    R.J. Anderson’s opening lines ARE great.

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  3. Great tips on opening lines. I agree with Teresa. The example from R.J. Anderson is great.

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  4. yep, that hook is sooooo important, and there are a million ways to dangle it:)

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  5. VERY wise advice. Great to keep in the back of one's mind that you may get the beginning down okay (and even love it), but it won't necessarily be in FINAL form until you have the entire book done. Because like you said, things change. I looooove the cover of GATHERING DARK--such beautiful form and mood and offswept hair! :)

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  6. The comment about the orange juice cracks me up because that is EXACTLY how one of my most favorite novels begins, the Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. Of course that was 25 years ago before we were jaded by orange juice. :)

    I loved the opening given, but wish we could have seen the opening paragraph for Gathering Dark too.

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  7. Great post, Christine! Can't wait to read GD!!

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  8. I, like Margo, went right to Blue Sword with the OJ. My openings are continually evolving as I sync them up with the evolution of the whole story. I agree, nothing gets rewritten more than the opening.

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  9. That is an awesome opening!!! Love the voice in it - and the shivers it causes! Great advice :)

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  10. Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I've never read Blue Sword, but in light of the comments, I clearly must! For those who asked, here are the opening lines of THE GATHERING DARK: "Normally, Keira didn't notice the shoppers who trickled through the department store. She just sat, head down, playing the obnoxious, white-lacquered baby grand. But this time was different. The oily-smooth voice cracked her focus like an egg smashing against a windowpane." And there you have it!

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