Saturday, 25 July 2009

Opening Thoughts #2

Ever wondered what it would be like to walk through a cow? You haven't? Really?

Toasting marshmallows in the flames of toil! Oh, I like that Maria! Grab your toasting forks everyone!
Well, I think I burned my marshmallows last week, absorbing everything I could about openings - literary openings and the induction, which is like the opening to a trance-like state. Figured I'd discover more interesting parallels! I found a few. Here are my bestest observations:

I've been reading through lists of favourite openings and also lists of things not to do in the opening. Good to tackle a topic from different perspectives! Turns out that agents receive an awful lot of manuscripts that open with the protag on a journey, often a plane.

I can see the logic in this. It's rather like the classic bridge scene in a movie - the symbol of moving from one state to another, from an old way of life to a new way of life. (Forward momentum!) For examples of the bridge scene, check out Mona Lisa, Shrek, Rain Man, and also Jagged Edge (in which the Golden Gate bridge is both symbolic and establishing).

I was inspired by ricardo to read Iris Murdoch's debut novel Under the Net (good call ricardo!). She opens with the protag post transitional journey. He has just stepped off the train, having returned home to England, '...the smell of France still fresh in my nostrils.'
I've never found cause to dispute the old 'go in late' chestnut. When you consider how late to go in, the advice muddies a little, but there's nothing wrong with opening at the first point of change, occasionally referred to as the inciting incident, although, like Satan and George Eliot, it has many names, which is why I like to break things into consistent, neat, easy-to-digest chunklets and call them change. My smazy brain likes easy things.
The bridge scene is, I feel, a visual cue and not best suited to written narrative. When Bob Hoskins crosses the bridge with bag in hand, the bridge visually symbolises his transition from his years in prison to his new life (Mona Lisa [from memory]).
In a novel, the author might elect to go in later, at the point where Bob Hoskins has crossed the bridge and begins to interact with the components of his new life - on the precipice of change.

I wonder how Iris Murdoch chooses to open her debut novel ...

When I saw Finn waiting for me at the corner of the street I knew at once that something had gone wrong.

Other commonly submitted openings begin with protag looking in mirror, protag eating breakfast, and descriptions of sunrises.

If Jack Bickham were dead, his ghost would be sat beside me right now, his little eyebrows wiggling. Hope he's not dead. I have no idea. He's ace!*
Yes, Jack refers to this as warming up the engines. He says not to do that. I must point out here that agents appear to be cool with all these hackneyed openings, so don't fret if your protag is eating breakfast on a plane whilst looking at himself in a mirror with one eye and watching the sun rise with his other eye. Whilst I imagine the alarm bells will be hopping excitedly in the agent's mind, nodding their heads as if to say 'Now? Can we ring now?', agents understand that pieces of dead cow can make millions in the hands of Damien Hirst.

Prologues don't seem to be very popular. Rather, they are somewhat derided. One commenter suggested that prologues are the artifice of the writer who is unable to write a captivating opening chapter. I think this observation is misleading, because it's largely semantic: if you replaced the title 'Prologue' with the title 'Chapter One', the argument is somewhat moot.
However, I think the idea stems from the concept of the backwards-looking opening - the big info dump - the introductory back-story.

Jack opens his book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes with a Forward (sic) which begins:

The preliminary section of a book is often labeled a 'Foreword.' But in a book involving fiction technique, the word ought to be 'Forward.'
Why? ... To emphasize two vital points: All good fiction moves forward; all good fiction writers look ahead.

Chuck Wadey.

Several things struck me as I scoured webpage after webpage, youtube clip after youtube clip, scrutinizing the art of the hypnotic induction. Primarily:
The induction works best on groups of blonde girls.
I know - sounds spurious. But the reality is that not all subjects are good subjects. A good subject is suggestible, which is to say that she is willing - she wants to be induced. The two waitresses from the Hooters bar are pretty safe bets when it comes to seeking subjects who want to make a spectacle of themselves, right? The hypnotist does not force a person into a trance. The hypnotist finds a subject who wants to believe.

Why groups (say, more than one person)? Because of the human need to conform (pressure to conform), and because of the human desire to avoid embarrassment. Once the first few girls have had their index fingers 'magnetised' and are completely unable to keep them apart, the others follow. (No, I'm not going to use the word sheep.) Or, when that girl is up on the stage in front of an audience of friends and baying men, she would feel foolish if she 'failed'. Or, when some guy comes up to you in the street and asks if he can hypnotise you and you agree and he stares you in the eyes and pushes your head into his hands, how foolish are you going to look if, having already agreed to participate, you lift your head and say 'Wtf!'?

Another thing that truly struck me about professional inductions was the speed with which the subject can be placed 'into a trance'. We're talking instantaneous! Notably, there is a handshake induction which never fails to amaze me! (This uses the technique of pattern interrupts which I'll look at another time.)

The reader wants to believe. Gosh, even the agent wants to believe! And they really don't need any prevarication, noodling, back-story, descriptive prose or motivation at the outset. That stuff can wait, at least a little while, really it can. They need a reason - a reason to care!

Here are some things that Rachelle Gardner has found to care about:

Today I looked at some of my favorite first lines from novels, and asked myself why I liked them. I found each one appealed to me for a different reason. It might have:

-been clever
-been thought-provoking
-brought an immediate smile (or stab) of recognition
-struck me as poignant
-painted a really cool word picture
-set up an intriguing mystery
-introduced a character I want to know better
-made me laugh
-drawn me into an unfamiliar world
-used words in a beautiful way

The one thing they all have in common is they make me want to read more. They immediately draw me into the universe of the novel by the unique voice that first line begins to establish.

More soon.
(Note to self: Patterns, pattern interrupts, confusion and N4oo as they relate to the creation of a suggestible state; benefits of suggestible state; more on caring.)

* Turns out that Jack died after battling lymphoma. He died two years ago on this very day! One of those strange coincidences, like posting a picture of the 2001 star baby and thinking 'I haven't seen 2001: A Space Odyssey for years!' and then discovering that it's on tv at the weekend. RIP Jack and thanks for your guidance. X

No comments: