Just 2 Little Things
by Kate Karyus Quinn
We all look for different things in the books we choose to read. What works for one reader will fall flat for another. I mention this because in this post I am going to discuss inspired opening, which means that I’ll explain the elements that I believe create a super strong and compelling beginning of a story. The “I believe” part is important, because in reality there are hundreds of different ways to tell a story and that includes 100 different ways to begin it as well. So what follows is simply what I want as a reader within the first few paragraphs of a story, and what in turn I try to give as a writer.
So with those qualifiers and caveats taken care of, let’s discuss the two distinct elements that are necessary to create an inspired opening:
1. A mood or tone is established.
2. One or more questions are raised that make me think: “I’m not sure exactly what is happening here, but I sure would like to find out.”
That’s it. Just two little things and I’m all in, ready to go wherever the story takes me. Just two little things, which makes this sound incredibly simple, when in reality it is anything but.
To give a clearer idea of exactly what I’m talking about, I have a visual example from KILL BILL: VOL. I. And yes, I know we’ve been talking about books and now I’m all, “Hey here’s a clip from a movie.” I have a very good reason for this… Actually in keeping with the two elements, I’ll give you two reasons.
1. Student loans. I earned my MFA in film and television production after getting a BFA in theatre. It was a wonderful and also incredibly expensive experience. As I repay my loans for the next twenty-five years (or so) it helps me to think of my time there as having been well spent.
2. Visuals stick in my brain, especially when accompanied by music. And when writing I lean on these visuals for inspiration. Thus if you’re wondering where to begin your novel, think about where some great movies start their stories.
The movie that immediately came to mind when I was thinking about how to approach this topic of inspired openings was Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL: VOL. I It’s funny cause I’m not a huge Tarantino fan, mostly due to my being a wimp and having to cover my eyes during all the scary and/or gory parts. If you are a Tarantino fan then you know that I end up covering my eyes A LOT. And yes, I saw both Vol. I and Vol. II of KILL BILL in the movie theater (another thing I try to avoid because it can be embarrassing for strangers to hear you whimper). After the splatter-fest that was Vol. I, I almost didn’t want to come back for Vol. II, but I had to, because from the very first frame of the movie I was so completely sucked in that I knew I was going to follow this story wherever it took me, even if those places were scary and gory and made me cringe.
So here is that opening scene:
This opening easily satisfies the two components I want in an opening:
Mood/Tone: Check (and this clip cuts off before we get to the title sequence with the song “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” which cranks the moodometer a million degrees higher.)
Questions Raised: Um, let me recap: “It’s your bab—” BANG
So, yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty compelling question left in the viewer’s mind.
Okay, so music, visuals, amazing performances from crazy-good actors are all off the table when writing a book, so how do you start a book with a BANG without a sound effect literally going BANG? It’s tricky, but it can be done. Let’s turn to an amazing example from Maggie Stiefvater’s THE SCORPIO RACES:
It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.
This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.
I am so, so alive.
As you can see, THE SCORPIO RACES easily clears both of the hurdles I set up:
Mood, tone: Check
Questions Raised: Check (within the first sentence no less!)
Two other amazing examples are TIGER LILY by Jodi Lynn Anderson and ANGELA’S ASHES by Frank McCourt. I am not going to include them here, but if you are unfamiliar with either of these books, I encourage you to harness the power of Google to find the first few pages of these books, read them, and quickly tick off element #1. and element #2. Then read the rest of the book, because both are amazing.
And finally for the last example, there’s my book: ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE.
the first person
The field didn’t end so much as trail off, beaten back by the rusted-out trailer and circle of junked vehicles surrounding it. As if they had forgotten how to be still, the girl’s bare and bloodied feet tripped and stumbled over each other. Slowly, slowly, the momentum that had brought her through the night and into the cold gray dawn leeched away. She tugged at the garbage bag she’d refashioned as a poncho. It was worse than useless at keeping her dry, but its constant crinkle had been a steady companion, and now that she’d reached her destination it seemed wrong to let it be lost to the wind.
Standing still, she studied the No Trespassing sign spray-painted on a weathered chunk of plywood, waiting for something to happen. Certain that something would. She didn’t know where she was, or even her own name, but she felt certain of this.
So does ALP satisfy both condition #1 and #2? I think so and am hoping that readers will agree and decide to jump right into the rest of the story. But for more cautious readers, you can find the first 80-some pages with HarperTeen’s browse inside feature here: http://browseinside.harperteen.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780062135957&pid=500&iframe=true&width=100%&height=800.
About the Author
Kate Karyus Quinn is an avid reader and menthol ChapStick addict. She has lived in California and Tennessee, but recently made the move back to her hometown of Buffalo, New York, with her husband and two children in tow. She promised them wonderful people, amazing food, and weather that would . . . build character. Another Little Piece is her first novel and is now available wherever books are sold. Her next novel, (DON’T YOU) FORGET ABOUT ME will be published by HarperTeen in 2014.
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About the Book
The spine-tingling horror of Stephen King meets an eerie mystery worthy of Sara Shepard's Pretty Little Liars series in Kate Karyus Quinn's haunting debut.
On a cool autumn night, Annaliese Rose Gordon stumbled out of the woods and into a high school party. She was screaming. Drenched in blood. Then she vanished.
A year later, Annaliese is found wandering down a road hundreds of miles away. She doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know how she got there. She only knows one thing: She is not the real Annaliese Rose Gordon.
Now Annaliese is haunted by strange visions and broken memories. Memories of a reckless, desperate wish . . . a bloody razor . . . and the faces of other girls who disappeared. Piece by piece, Annaliese's fractured memories come together to reveal a violent, endless cycle that she will never escape—unless she can unlock the twisted secrets of her past.
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