Thursday, February 20, 2014

Critique Observations: Car Crash Openings

Here's the second installment of Critique Observations, thoughts gathered while editing and shared to help you improve your writing.  The first installment, on rambling dialogue, is HERE.

It's an ongoing misconception, the idea that tension equals action.  While it's certainly true that a good action scene is tense, and that tension moves a story forward, it does not logically follow that the opening pages of a novel need to throw us into the middle of an action scene.  Here is why.

1.  We don't know the main character yet.  As such, we cannot invest in this character's life.  If this life is in danger from page one, we don't have a reason to care.  While a near-death scene at the opening of a novel might seem intriguing, it only serves to slap us upside the head with something we're not ready for, and can't possibly care about (yet).

Example A--The Wounded Hero opening:

I raise my head from the dust, the metallic zing of blood in my mouth.  Even this small motion brings sharp pain, and I groan as I try to rise.  I fail.

Cheek pressed against the cold earth, I close my eyes and try to remember why I'm here.  Vague memories of acrid smoke and sharp metal assault my brain, but nothing makes sense.

So your first response might be, "Oh, this is tense!  He's hurt!  Wonder what happened!"  But in the long run, this is a risky way to start a novel (particularly if you are inexperienced; I'm sure the masters-who've-been-writing-for-decades might pull something like this off).  For all we know, this guy-with-a-bleeding-head might be a jerk.  A loser.  Someone we aren't going to care about at all.  Do I want to commit to reading 400 pages about him?  Probably not.

This doesn't mean we have to begin with Once upon a time, there was a man named Blake who wore his head in a long, red braid and worked as a spy for the Intergalactic Government.  But we do need to get to know Blake a little better before we blast him with shrapnel.

The answer is, simply, to back up the story a bit.  Sometimes just a tiny bit.  Give us the tension that's building before the explosion or the accident, and offer us a few pages to get acquainted with your main character.  If the Bad Thing is your inciting incident, it doesn't need to show up until the end of chapter 1 or chapter 2, anyway.  So let things build for a while.

The suns were at their zenith as I made my way to the landing dock.  This month's shipment was already days late, and operations would slam to a halt if something didn't show up soon.

Not to mention the part about starving to death.  Dead soil didn't do much in the way of growing food.  

Okay, nothing bad has happened yet, but you can feel the possibility that something might.  The shipment's late.  It sounds like our protagonist doesn't know why it's late.  And he's clearly worried.  A few pages from now, we can slam him with whatever lands him on the ground with blood in his mouth.  And by that time, we'll know--and hopefully like--him.

Example B--The OMG-I'm-Going-To-Die Hero opening

Janet is just reaching for her iPhone when the car skids to the right.  Gasping, she braces her arms on the dashboard.

In the next instant, the world blurs.  Dana screams as she frantically tries to regain control of the car, and Janet goes numb.  With sickening suddenness, the motion stops, and there is nothing but glass, thousands of tiny shards, everywhere.  Glass, and the scent of gas.  Glass, and sharp pain whenever Janet tries to breathe.

In all seriousness, this type of opening was so common during the Baker's Dozen slush reading this past year that Jodi and I dubbed it "car crash", regardless of whether or not the accident took place in a car.  And I continue to see this type of opening in the projects that come across my desk.

This opening scene has the same inherent problems as Blake's scene above--we don't know the main character, so we can't care that she might be dying.  (And of course, she's not dying, since the story is just starting.  Or she is dying, because the story is paranormal.  But that's so overdone that we can smell it a league away.)  The answer is the same, too--back up the story so that we get to know Janet and her life a little bit before we catapult her into a 3-car collision.

2.  We need to understand the world/setting before we're plunged into action.  It's bad enough not knowing who our main character is before we yank his arm off or wake him up in the E.R.  But if the world we're dropped into makes no sense, it's not going to do anything but confuse us.  And we won't want to read more.

Example C--The World Is Chaos opening

Mira touched the molten glass with one tentative finger.  The c'vku in the air glowed, hissing more loudly the longer she stayed in contact.  She closed her eyes, trying to remember what step twelve was, when the floors and wall began to vibrate, the pitch growing higher as the vibrations increased.

Too late!  She had begun the Weaning Declaration too late!

Dead crows--thousands of them--fell from the ceiling as Mira screamed, clawing her way toward the holy portal, the molten glass stuck to her finger.  The universe tipped, spilling her north, then south, then in directions she couldn't keep track of.  When the scent of lava pushed its way up her nostrils, she knew that her failure had been complete.

(Okay, that was fun.)

But seriously, I have encountered openings with this level of confusion.  I'm certain that, in the mind of the author, everything is crystal clear.  But foisting a world upon a reader in the midst of chaos is not going to draw him into your world, or into your story.  We need a setting that we can understand, regardless of how fantastical your world may be.  We need to feel grounded before you pull the rug out from under us.

Example D--The There Is No World opening

The pain in my legs is unbearable.  I try to move first one, then the other.  But each movement, no matter how small, wracks me with pain.

Slowly, I lie back and force myself to breath slowly, deeply.  Then, as the pain subsides a little, I try again to move myself into a sitting position.  Pressing my hands against the floor, I throw my weight into my shoulders and try to pull myself backward.

That's when I see the bone protruding from my left shin.

Not only are we given an injured main character whom we don't know, but we have no setting at all.  No light or dark, no inside or outside, no sights or smells or sounds or anything else to give us a clue where--or when--we are.  This character exists in a vacuum, which probably makes him the least likely to grab our attention.

In conclusion, I offer a plea: Don't mistake tension for action!  Don't succumb to the well-meant but faulty advice to "start with action".  You need to start with TENSION.  You need to hint at CONFLICT.  But you don't need to blow things up and shoot things and gouge eyes out and kill people.  Not on page one.

I love the opening of Divergent by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books, 2011).  It draws us into the world and offers a deliciously subtle hint of tension:

There is one mirror in my house.  It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs.  Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

I sit on the stool and my mother stand behind me with the scissors, trimming.  The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.

When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot.  I note how calm she looks and how focused she is.  She is well-practiced in the art of losing herself.  I can't say the same of myself.

There you have it.  Nothing is exploding.  Nobody is dying.  The writing is clean and spare, and in only three short paragraphs, the characters are coming to life.  So is the world.

Craft your openings carefully, dear writers.  War and mayhem can come later, when we care whether or not your main characters survives.

Happy writing!



    I think an easy solution for the car crash opening is to move the car crash to the end of chapter one. Then you have a whole chapter to get to know the character, and when you hit the end of chp 1, something crazy happens and, well, you have to turn the page to chapter 2.

    I think sometimes people get so worried about the inciting incident placement. Yes, it should be as early as possible, but not to the detriment of the story. In my MS (on sub) the inciting incident doesn't happen until chapter 4. I needed those first 3 chapters to set all of the peices in place so the II would carry all the weight it needed to.

    I mean, i think it comes down to the idea that you can do anything. As long as it works. And 9 times out of 10, these kinds of openings don't work

  2. Very well said. Hopefully this post will send lots of good storytellers scurrying back to redo their openings.

    This is one of the reasons I love to read the varying writer offerings on your blog. Reading entries, one after the other, helps me understand what agents/editors see and quickly points out problems. Car crashes or someone dying in the first paragraph. sometimes the first sentence, is one of the biggest.

    Thank you, Authoress, for analyzing the material posted, identifying the problems you're seeing, and offering advice and examples on how to avoid them.

  3. Thank you Authoress!! You are so wise. I myself am guilty of the "waking up/dream" opening," but have since mended my ways! Hahaha---

    I love your blog. Thanks for all the wisdom.

  4. I like this.

    It's tough to avoid starting with action sometimes, though, when "normal life" for your main character is an action sequence, like they're an international spy or assassin or something like that; I think though, in that situation as long as you don't show them getting hurt, and you can show their personality, and that there's something special about them in their business as usual--well, then can it work?

  5. It seems like it would make more sense to start just before the action. One of my fears starting (particularly long projects) is that starting in the middle of things would just cause disorientation.

    Of course short fiction is a different animal. But even then one of my first stories made the mistake of starting in sort of a "car crash" opening.

    Hopefully I'll work out something.

    It really is a weird feeling uncovering one of your first pieces.

  6. Great advice, Authoress. :) I think one of the keys to an effective opening is balance. Something should be happening at the start of a book because you don't want your characters living inside their heads or have some omniscient narrator laying out the facts in a miasma of exposition. It's important to ground the reader in the story before the guns go off and there are exploding body parts all over the place or whatever.

    I feel the same way about openings that start with dialogue. If not done well it can ruin a first page. For the reader it's like walking in on a party in progress where everyone knows each other and you don't know anyone. It can be off-putting. It's not wise to alienate your reader.

  7. Thank you! Both your posts on this subject offer excellent advice. I really appreciate your information and insight.

    My "fingernails on chalkboard" openings are funerals. So overdone, and like car crashes, we're not vested in anybody, so why should we care? Yet I see them constantly and I remember being flabbergasted when an online contest (not one of yours) picked a generic funeral opening as their best intro winner. I stopped reading the site after that.

  8. I always get a kick out of your examples; though they're often funny, there's sometimes an element or two that makes me think, 'Hey, that could really make a good story!' ;)

    But I have to bring up the old 'if you write well enough you can get away with anything' issue. The opening of Gene Wolfe's Nightside the Long Sun is one of my favorite openings of any novel. And it almost immediately jumps into the character's vision, describing image after image, and talking about countless things the reader knows nothing about yet. But the writing is so gorgeous and the images so strange and compelling that for me it was the ultimate hook; I was immediately dying to find out what all this stuff meant. And I was so enamored with the writing itself I hardly cared what the book was about anyway!

    But I know Wolfe's work is an acquired taste (I've seen a lot of people commenting on forums that they just can't read it), and even my retired English prof dad didn't like that opening because, even though he certainly appreciated the sophistication and complexity of the language and the beauty of the imagery, he didn't care for the confusing array of unexplained references.

    But I'll always think that's one of the most brilliant things I've ever read, and if I could do it as well as Mr. Wolfe does, I would certainly do an opening like that myself, even if it would only appeal to a few like-minded readers.

  9. I've critiqued a lot of story openings in critiquing groups and writing workshops, and I've seen exactly the same thing, and it always makes people's eyes glaze over. I think a lot of the time, novice authors give one another the feedback that they need action in the opening so much that when these authors who give this avice go to critique one of these sort of openings, they fumble trying to figure out what's wrong, because it's doing exactly what they keep saying should be done. The bad advice just keeps getting passed around because now everybody and their dog has a blog, and once you've paid for a domain name, apparently you're an authority on how to write. It's gotten harder and harder to sift through all the stuff online to figure out which advice is from someone who really does know what they're talking about.

  10. Hi, Authoress: this was a beaut of a post, thanks much. I actually opened one of my older novels using Example B (shudder). I think entering all those RWA contests made me think -- I gotta have some kind of disaster opening, that immediate action. Thing is, as you say - how can you attach to the character and really care? Of course you can't. I'll be mindful of this when I do rewrites. Another favorite opening is a "dream" or waking up, or a shower scene. (LOL) I'll keep working hard to improve. Appreciate your wonderful insights.

  11. My favorite example of providing tension without the "car crash" opening is The Hunger Games. I think most writers, following the advice we hear so much, would be tempted to open with Prim's name being chosen. It's a moment of high drama! Action! The moment everything changes! Instead, Suzanne Collins starts with (of all things) the main character waking up. But she ends the first paragraph with words "the reaping," and we have to keep reading.

    This chapter also illustrates my other belief, which is that the less familiar the MC's ordinary life is, the more time we need to experience and understand it. If she's a teenager at a present day American high school, we don't need a chapter (or even two pages) to understand it. But if it's a new time or place (real or imagined), we need to know how it normally is before we can appreciate the inevitable change. Suzanne Collins spends the rest of the first chapter setting up Katniss's struggles, her fears, her relationships, all the while with the Reaping hanging over our heads. So when Prim's name is drawn, we can fully experience the horror along with Katniss.

  12. Such a great post! It makes me eyeball my own new opening (which is already a lot better than the last one). You're right. Writers hear "start with action" and yet the reader doesn't have a reason to be invested in this action or this character yet. A little development is all you need.