Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Opening Thoughts #3

Still pondering my opening, acutely aware that if my opening isn't up to scratch, whatever a good scratch might be, then the successive eighty thousand words or so are moot. It's an unpleasant thought eh?
My ponderings are still orbiting a sun named What-does-a-good-opening-do?
And I've yet to abandon the hypnotic trance train of thought.

The idea first struck me when I was re-reading Ali Smith's The Accidental. I looked up after thirty or so pages and thought to myself: Crumbs! I've just read thirty or so pages without a thought for the outside world. It immediately occurred to me that she had mesmerised me - that she had presented nothing that would cause me to stumble, and nothing that required a hefty stretch of my imagination, and nothing that required mighty effort from the grey matter. No difficult words and no harsh words (remember the buba/takete experiment?) that might have encumbered or spiked the narrative.*
We've been dipping in and out of the idea of the pulse for years and I'd like to reconsider it.

It struck me, too, whilst ploughing through blog after blog of advice on opening a novel, and reading through scores of examples from the published and from the unpublished, both talented and not so, that the unpublished tend to rely on a formula, such that they look to capture the reader's interest from the off, typically with the bang, boom, yippee-ki-yay. I've tried this and I don't like it. Hard to say why I don't like it, although I suspect that it simply feels too contrived to me.
Then there are the clever plot devices used in the opening. I like these a little better. I like a clever reversal in the opening paragraph. It's quite a feat and instantly establishes the author's authority and I think that, alone, is enough to inspire me to continue reading.
I don't think anyone likes the ponderous and descriptive opening which fails to indicate any direction and, worse still, the backwards looking opening which points in the wrong direction - away from the end of the novel which is where the unspoken countdown reaches zero.

I don't think plot particularly interested me for quite some time. I feel that I'm now returning to that place, although with a long holiday at Plotston under my belt. I was always predominantly interested in the words and the meanings and the rhythms, and how they could capture the reader and play with her emotions. Plot, to me, was always about arranging these emotions; plot, to me, was a functional device which existed to serve the emotional topography.
I see it as something more now. I think plot can do the same thing as the words and meanings in that it can create, and not just assist in the creation and organisation of, emotional response. It's a tenuous thought, and one which I shall return to anon.

So, having absorbed all of those openings and deciding that I didn't much care for most of them, it made sense to return to the books I love - the books that have endured in my heart. And sure enough, there's not a yippee-ki-yay in sight. However, there is rhythm from the off - an unfettered and, dare I say, calming rhythm, constructed around a highly simplistic plot idea which invariably nudges the story towards a change. It's what I love. And, I suspect, when I began adapting my opening to adhere to more, for want of a better word, gratuitous plot dictates, I lost my truth. (Yes, the MacGuffin still troubles.)
For a long time, I hadn't spotted this need for change in the opening chapter, or at least it's imperative, and I'll always pay careful attention to advice and to other opinions and ways of tackling a problem. My feeling now is that either the market or the agents have become more impatient.

A brief look at what appears to be de rigeuer in an opening:

- Moving forwards means providing the reader with a steady stream of rewards and, more importantly, the expectation of rewards, from start to finish. Regardless of the plot's importance in creating these rewards, they should be shaped into emotional responses. I read, partly, because I like feeling happy or sad (etc.), but mainly because I like looking forwards to feeling happy or sad (etc.). Open to discussion.
- Quick immersion into the world! Interesting topic. To me, this suggests a feel for the author's style and tone, which governs everything, and the sensory stuff - the predicates, which makes the world more vivid, and a positive (as in the reader wants it) relationship with the protag, who is the host (receptacle) for our projected self, and the sense that something is about to occur, such that this universe held within narrative is dynamic - it moves and changes, creating a healthy environment for expectations.

And this seems to be the force which guides the openings to my favourite novels. They are vivid immersions bound by a powerful and authoratative voice. They flow and stimulate and provide no reasons to leave.
Is it more important to provide no reasons to leave than to provide reasons to stay?
Strikes me that those openings written by the unpublished which leave me unmoved are filled with formulaic attempts to keep me reading. Perhaps our attention should be focused** on the idea of creating an authoratative and flawless voice which remains humble and yet passionate and true?

Update: Just noticed that this topic is currently under discussion on Rachelle Gardner's blog.

The pattern interrupt is a technique which is designed to confuse the subject. It relies on a pattern or routine which either exists already (the handshake; tying one's shoe; etc.) or is created by the hypnotist. There's a comfort in routine, in patterns, and I've been attempting to exploit this in my writing for years, notably with the word palettes. To break these patterns is to leave the subject momentarily bewildered. In such a state, they become highly suggestible and compliant. To test this, I've been playing with pattern interrupts in my narrative. After all, if we agree that one of our aims, at least initially, is to create a vivid universe and to immerse the reader into this universe, then does in not make sense to utilise techniques which will create a compliance in the reader?
Note that the pattern interrupt is instantly followed by relaxation. If you dig out some Youtube clips, you'll even notice how the hypnotist's voice changes at the instant that the subject is confused: the hypnotist is suddenly much calmer and relaxed, inviting the subject to mirror this response.
Anyhoo, my tests appear to have failed. There could be many reasons why, and I have much to consider. The consistent response has been twofold: I find x confusing; I am expecting stuff to happen.
This seems to lend weight to my argument that the writer must not present a reason to leave in the opening, and confusion could very easily be regarded as a reason to leave. Although I am mindful of the rapid-fire object- and/or subject-switching technique which creates confusion and works very well in high octane chase scenes and fight scenes, and is used by many brilliant authors, it occurs to me that the opening might not be the best place for this. The opening to Quantum of Solace upset me terribly: the opening car chase is edited at such a frenzied pace that I was left dizzy, utterly unable to lose myself in this world. Moreover, this pace was maintained for a good long while and I became desperate for a moment of respite, a moment in which I could chill out and bond with the universe (pun intended. Forgive me.).
Conversely, before Indy goes off into that temple (Raiders), we hear those amazing bird songs and feel the oppressive heat and lushness of the jungle - we have time to settle and to learn a little about Indy and who he is and how others regard him and how his life might be.

Crikey, I'm going to break off there for now. Wonder if I have enough to rework my opening yet? Hmm ... perhaps not.

*N.B. Ali Smith's use of the word 'numinousness' on page one is food for thought. It snags wouldn't you agree? Did you not make several attempts to hear it in your head? Why is it there? Is it a pattern interrupt? Would the narrative work better without it - with a more mellifluous synonym? Is it designed to create a moment of discomfort which, in turn, makes the reader more receptive to the successive onslaught of majestic simplicity?

**Focused or focussed?
(Short answer: Either.)


esruel said...

Having spent a mountain of time on my opening, any number of alarm bells go off on discovering that there might be an alternative beginning - the word 'rewrite' bouncing around my head causing me to practicaly throw my notes up in the air in horror.
Anyhow, following our mostv recent discussions, I am slowly coming back down on the side of my original opening. It seems the best approach: plenty of movement, inormation and dialogue. As much show as I could muster, too.
But still, it nags: is it good enough?
Perhaps, only at the end will I know what the beginning needs to be. For me, I think the answer has to be not to worry. The beginning can be amended, created, as long as the main body is worthy of reading. We shall see!

esruel said...

I must learn to spell, too...

solv said...

I'll tell you what my friend, if I could think of a better opening to my ms, I wouldn't think twice about using it, regardless of how much rewriting was needed.
I wouldn't be concerned with the shows - you should probably always be showing anyhoo: I'd be concerned about what you're showing and when.
Strikes me that you have sooo much material - so many possibilities for an outstanding, gripping opening with a reversal thrown into the first paragraph too! A gift! Just promise me that you won't open with an info dump! :o)