by C.L. Phillips
What do you get when you fall in love? Burt Bacharach asked that question in one of his songs. I confess I can hear Dionne Warwick singing as these words hit the screen.
How fast do you fall in love with a book?
I fall in love before I turn the first page. I throw myself into the story, lose track of everything and everyone around me and escape into what I am reading. And if the first page doesn't draw me in like that, I throw the book away, or delete the sample from my Kindle. But when that first page works, when love strikes and I'm compelled to read the rest of the novel that fast, I'm rarely disappointed.
Now I want to deliver that same experience to my readers, and it's tougher than I thought. The big question is "where do you begin the story?" Every character has a life before the story opens. How much of it do you need to know?
Last week I sat in a room with five other writers and we read the openings to about twenty books. Some were best sellers, others simply personal favorites, and others our works in progress. After five hours, I can tell you with great conviction that I may not know how to write a strong opening, but I can now identify one. Like learning the field marks of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, I know what makes me turn the page.
What did I learn? The magic lies in the choice of each word. Specific. Sharp. Memorable. In strong openings each word serves triple duty, more than exposing the action, or introducing the emotion, each word sculpts the fine nuances that tie theme, premise, and promise together with tension.
A tall order for mere mortals. But not for Burt Bacharach. I've decided strong opening chapters are like a song. Crisp and unforgettable, with an cadence that carries you into the story problems. Rhythm, rhyme, melody and time.
Like Katniss from Hunger Games, or Jack Reacher from Lee Child's novels, I'm drawn to characters that drag me into the story problem quickly, with clear emotions, minimal distractions. Characters with a strong moral compass. It's not about likability for me, it's about situational strength. I love characters that fit their environment. No pussy footing around. I want a mystery in the first sentence, a problem within the first paragraph, and a fast beating heart before I turn the first page. Field marks.
What are your field marks to a great opening?