Opening a novel

I'll reproduce one of my recent essays from the 'virtual world tour' for the release of Coda by Vignette Press as I think it has some relevance to this blog as well. Plus it means I'm able to post something simply by cutting and pasting. This allows me to get on with the important business of watching a documentary on SBS. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story called Harrison Bergeron which begins like this: 'The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.' This is typical of his style. I remember reading somewhere that Vonnegut preferred this kind of opening, that he was able to shortcut a lot of establishment by simply stating the facts baldly. I must admit, with an opening sentence like that, you know exactly what you're going to get.

Although I shamelessly pilfer much of Vonnegut’s technique, I've never once opened a story in this fashion. Something has always bugged me about announcing the year in the first sentence of a story. Nobody does that in real life. I didn't start this essay with: 'The year is 2007 and I am sitting on the couch.' Harrison Bergeron was originally published in 1961, so maybe times were simpler back then.

Let's try it again. The year is 2007, it is now the day after I wrote the last paragraph and I am on my lunch break.

Nah, it's still not working for me.

Like the authors I venerate, I cut my teeth writing short stories and, unlike them, only recently graduated (if you want to call it that) to novels. So far, my technique for introducing a longer work is no different from the shorter form. I've never been one for holding the reader’s hand. The example below is from my short story Coda, recently released in 'Mini Shot' form by Vignette Press, but it is very similar to the opening paragraph of my first novel, Here Today.

Martin Finn rolls his eyes at me. Two seconds into my first patient here and I’ve put my foot in it. How is he? He can’t move a muscle in his body! How do you think he feels, Astrid?

This is my kind of opening. It makes very few direct statements, but tells you a lot about these people, their surroundings, and the situation in which they find themselves. Astrid’s voice is also established here as well as the first inklings of what kind of person is telling this story. Crucially, it also establishes a tension – a gentle tension I'll grant you, but a tension nonetheless. Immediately you may begin asking yourself questions about how Martin ended up in this state, or how Astrid will recover from making such a clinical faux pas. The other thing I like about this opening is that you enter immediately after the dialogue. You know what was said, or at least you can make an educated guess, but you didn't 'hear' it. You didn't need to. For me, an opening should draw you in, not by neatly establishing the facts, but by intriguing you, by dropping you into a scene with no preparation and no expectations.

It can be incredibly effective in getting a story running from the first sentence (essential for short fiction), but it is also a delicate balancing act.

The line between intriguing a reader and annoying them is extremely fine. Set up a mystery, by all means, but find some quick early resolution so the reader can continue without being completely baffled. In some ways, this is where short stories come into their own. You can entertainingly baffle a reader for 2,000 words, but anything after that and they’ll stop reading. In the example above, I don't immediately resolve the reason for Martin's condition, but I do further establish that we are in a hospital, that Astrid is an occupational therapist, and that the faux pas is nothing more than her misunderstanding of Martin's means of communication.

Is there a name for this technique? I'm sure there is, but I don't have much use for nomenclature. Suffice to say that, while it's not the only and perhaps not even the best means of introducing fledgling readers to your magnum opus, it does establish tension and, done well, compels further investigation. It's playful, a knowing nod from author to reader that they will have to think. There won't be any spoon-feeding here. Of course the trick then is to follow it up with something equally compelling and engaging. That's where the writer’s work really begins.

The year is 2007 and I'm already thinking about what I need to do this evening for the new novel. It doesn’t make for much of an ending either.