Wednesday, February 25, 2009


There's a perceived wisdom these days that everything needs to start with a bang, an event that drags the reader into the story. I even read a recent piece of writing advice which stated that every story needs to start with the hero in physical trouble or in action in the first sentence (the old 'I hoisted my pistol and pushed through the trees' or a variation thereon).

In a sense it's a throwback to the old pulp style of writing - the hook and backfill - start with a hero in terrible peril and then go back and explain to the reader how this came to be:

"Clinging by his fingertips to the sheer cliff face, Jed Colic glanced down at the two ravenous tigers prowling on the ground far below him and wondered how he had managed to get himself into this situation, again."

In truth, the hook and backfill technique isn't a bad way to start a story and runs in parallel to the excellent piece of advice about 'arriving late' in a story, but if every single piece of adventure fiction or SF or fantasy began with a moment of momentous physical difficulty for the protagonist what an incredibly dull world it would be.

I've lost count of the number of stories that I've read recently that have begun with a variant on:

"Look behind you!" Mothven screamed.
Kilfannon turned and saw the Grinfall beast rushing towards him."

Of course, the purpose of any beginning is to make the reader want to read on, but there are other ways of doing it rather than the immediate action or the killer first line. (although as a killer opener you'd go a long way to beat Camus' opening sentence from The Outsider: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.")

Sometimes, it's enough to write well, to create a mood or an atmosphere that hooks a reader's attention:

"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher." Edgar Allen Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher.

"The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide." Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Or, if you must have the immediate danger element:

"Across the red drifts and mail-clad forms, two figures glared at each other. In that utter desolation only they moved. The frosty sky was over them, the white illimitable plain around them, the dead men at their feet. Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. In the brooding silence they stood face to face." Robert E. Howard, The Frost Giant's Daughter

Or to get a little more modern:

"As near as I can discover, Mortdieu occurred seventy-seven years ago. Learned sons of pure flesh deny that magic was set loose, or even that the Alternate had gained supreme power. But few people could deny that God, as such, had died." Greg Bear, Petra.

"From the hill north of the city, Rice saw eighteenth-century Salzburg spread out below him like a half-eaten lunch.
Huge cracking towers and swollen, bulbous storage tanks dwarfed the ruins of the St. Rupert Cathedral. Thick white smoke billowed from the refinery's stacks. Rice could taste the familiar petrochemical tang from where he sat, under the leaves of a wilting oak."
Bruce Sterling & Lewis Shiner, Mozart in Mirrorshades.

With the exception of the Howard piece none of these openings shows us the hero in danger or indeed engaged in anything terribly exciting - Poe's narrator is riding towards the House of Usher, Conrad's is sitting aboard a ship at rest, Mozart in Mirrorshades begins with a description, Petra with a theosophical statement - yet there is an undeniable power to each of them a glimpse into another world that impels the reader further into the narrative.

Not everything in fiction needs to be fire and fury, even in something as action oriented as sword and sorcery there is still room to lure rather than bludgeon the reader:

"There comes, even to kings, the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester's bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky, and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh." Robert E. Howard, The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

“It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.” Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melnibone.

Arguably, both those passages represent the protagonist in trouble although there are no swords drawn or physical threats present, rather, the trouble they experience comes from a sickness of the soul. Action does not necessarily mean combat and narrative drive does not always imply the physical movement of the characters from point A to point B.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing. What may work for one writer and one particular story may not necessarily work for another. The hook and backfill technique applies to all of the stories mentioned here: using the opening of the story to hook the reader and then going on to explore their environment or predicament, it’s just not done in an obvious way.

And that, I feel, is the most difficult task facing a writer when he or she begins a new story – to avoid the obvious.

As a writer I have always found beginnings hard, middles difficult and endings damned near impossible. The preceding has been a little bit of writerly therapy for me which other writers may find of use (or totally disagree with, hey, I’m not setting myself up as an expert here). Thanks for indulging me.

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