Monday, March 23, 2009

Strong Starts in Stories

Two things collided in my head over the weekend and, no, they weren’t my NCAA bracket and the grocery list. They were two instances of writing that actually said the same thing.

The first was reading the first chapter of the first Gabriel Hunt book, as written by James Reasoner. You can read it here. The second was watching “A Kiss Before Dying” last night. What do these two things have in common? Strong openers.

With Gabriel Hunt’s story, you expect a strong opening and Reasoner delivers. Gabriel and his brother, Michael, are at a black-tie event when a woman approaches them with a wrapped package. No sooner does she start talking to the brothers than a waiter holding a gun appears. Action ensues and, by the end of the chapter, you can’t wait to turn the page (or, in our sense, wait for the dang book to be published!).

Last night, I saw “A Kiss Before Dying” for the first time. On the surface, it’s not a movie that would appear to have a strong opener. You’d expect some introduction, some charming scenes before the killer aspect of the film starts. I thought that and I was wrong. This film follows the Elmore Leonard School of Writing: start a scene at the last possible moment. The opening scene itself is the latter part of a conversation between Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward. She’s pregnant. What are they going to do. Bam! You are there, in the scene, and at least want to know what happens next. That you know Wagner is going to try and kill her (whether from the poster or from Robert Osbourne’s introduction) goes without saying.

The point I’m getting to is this: we read all these reports about the attention span of modern readers or viewers. As not-yet-published authors, we are trained to capture readers’ attention on the first sentence, the first paragraph at least, and, by gosh, the first page as a last resort. Part of me wants to rail against this type of writing. Surely, I think, we can give an author time to work toward a plot.

But, you know, I realized this type of storytelling has been going on for a long, long time. It’s not a recent type of story-telling. It’s probably the most exciting type, to be sure: grab the reader and go for the ride. Be sure your seatbelts are fastened. Go, go, go! On the other hand, Dan Simmons' latest tome, Drood, is one of the other kind: long lead-in but it sticks with you and you stick with the story, despite the slower pace.

I’m taking the faster type of storytelling to heart as I write my next novel. It’s inspired by a short story I wrote that Beat to a Pulp accepted (and will be published in May). I am turning that story into “Chapter 1” and moving forward. I’ve been wrangling with how I should approach the story. Is it a true western? Is a straight-ahead mystery? Is it a pulp throwback a la Gabriel Hunt? Is it a steampunkish tale a la TV’s “The Wild Wild West”? The answer is: I don’t know.

But I do know that I’m going to try and grab the reader’s attention on page one. We’ll see how it goes.

Do you prefer story-telling like this or slower, leisurely ones?


pattinase (abbott) said...

To my mind, A Kiss Before Dying was the one decent acting job I saw from Robert Wagner, and it's because he played against type. The recent remake wasn't as good for me because MD was just who you'd expect to murder someone. Among other defecits. Also loved the novel. Ira Levin was so versatile


Strong openers are a must ...but then so is keeping up the momentum. I'm eager to read James Reasoner's Gabriel book. I've done a fair few of his westerns and he does keep things zinging along without losing the sense of character.

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sandra seamans said...

Editors and readers love those jump into the action beginnings but I miss the old stories that started slow and let the action build. I think if you could do it like Chandler did in "Red Wind" it would still sell.

David Cranmer said...

I'm looking forward to the Gabriel Hunt book but until then the latest DEADWOOD has just been shipped and arrives day after tomorrow... I am glad you have decided to write a novel because that's just a damn entertaining character you have written... I don't mind stories that start slow but I begin mine with a bang.

Scott Parker said...

Sandra - I enjoy those kinds of books (and songs), too. My first book was that way: slower, gradual beginning to a slam-bang ending.

David - Glad you liked the character. Seeing as how he just sprang up for this one scene (i.e., the story) and I was trying to do something specific with the story, I'm enjoying filling in some details and background. And I'm just having fun with the larger book, too.

Patti - Never saw either film before Sunday night. Having seen the original, don't think I need to see the remake.

Gary - I've put Reasoner's books on hold at the library since I've never read any, to date.