Story Openings, Part 2, More Opening Techniques

In last week’s post, I stated that the action opening is the best opening because it begins in the middle of things, that is, in the middle of events happening to a character.

However, not every novel must open this way. The one rule about a good opening is this: it must always hook the reader and cause him/her to want to read more.

Here are two more types of openings:

1.         Opening lines. If written well, they can draw us in immediately. One of my favorite opening lines comes from Louis L’Amour’s novel, Sackett’s Land. Here’s what Mister  L’Amour wrote:

It was my devil’s own temper that brought me to grief, my temper and a skill with  weapons born of my father’s teaching.

            What makes this opening work? It not only hooks us, it also packs lots of important information into one concise sentence.

            a.         We’re introduced to the main character, and by the third paragraph we learn his   name is Barnabas Sackett. Since Barnabas is telling us the story, it’s written from his point of view.

            b.         The Hook. Barnabas has come to grief, but we must read on to find out what kind of trouble he’s in and how he got into it. We have a hint of danger, that something  is about to happen.

            c.         We learn three things about Barnabas, all relevant to his story. We learn (1) that  he has a temper, (2) he’s skilled with weapons, and (3) his father taught him how  to use them. L’Amour sets the stage for future events.

            d.         L’Amour’s narrative style continues for several pages before dialogue begins. Though Barnabas is writing about past events, he’s not writing backstory. Why not? Because backstory interrupts a story’s progress. Barnabas’s story doesn’t do that. He’s writing from another setting, looking back on past events, and these   past events are the story. The hook is that Barnabas will tell us some exciting  things that happened to him. Also, we see lots of action in the opening scene.

2.         Description. I’m not contradicting my previous post. Throat-clearing happens when we write numerous pages and paragraphs of static description before we get into our story. Static description is description without movement, like looking at a statue and listing its features. However, if we write our opening description  correctly, we can use it. A good descriptive opening has three features: a feeling of  action or movement, introduces at least one character, and it must be brief. Here’s how I started Book 2 in my Southern Sons-Dixie Daughters series, River Ruckus, Bloody Bay:

As the British steamer Bahama rounded forested Hog Island, she entered Nassau’s harbor and Master Alexander Jessup, Confederate States Navy, widened his eyes.  Side-wheelers and sailing sloops, screw steamers of every length and tonnage, hundreds it looked like, crowded it. British, Yankee. And blockade-runners, easily recognized by their long, low profile, squat masts, and bluish-white or lead color meant to blend in with the dawn’s light. Designed for speed, Alex had seen some of them under construction in Scotland during his recent stay in London.  

     Sails furled, they gently rocked on its clear as glass swells. Several ships steamed out, their funnels streaming smoke. Nassau caught his eye. The warm tropical sunrays bathed an array of buildings painted various colors and swaying palms; ladies twirling parasols, their escorts alongside, strolled its nearby beach. No longer was it that sleepy little Bahamian village he’d remembered from before the war.

     A half hour later he and Stribling worked their way up a curbed, people-packed walkway beneath royal poinciana trees’ brilliant red-orange canopies and past colorful limestone buildings. The whole island of New Providence, Alex recalled, was mostly limestone. Buggies jostled and maneuvered up a macadamized road. Some passersby curiously eyed the cast net draping Alex’s sea chest. A train of wagons carrying boxes stacked atop boxes marked “C.S.A.” headed for the wharves.

     “I imagine they’ll be loading those crates on one of our runners,” Stribling said. “They’re certainly not trying to hide whose side they’re on.”

And so the dialogue continues between my characters, Alex and Stribling, as we move into the story. The Hook: an exotic location that plays a key role in America’s Civil War.

Till next week, friends, thanks for visiting my blog!

Story Openings, Part 1, Don’t Clear Your Throat

Every novel has its own basic structure. It comes in three major parts: the opening, the middle, and the end.

Though all of these parts are important, but the most important part is the opening. If our first sentence or paragraph doesn’t hook readers and draw them into our story, they’ll likely put down our book and look elsewhere for entertainment.

One common mistake is called “throat clearing.” In novel writing, it means loading the opening pages with lots of information—backstory, flashbacks, description, and/or too many characters, for example. It’s “coughing up” words before we actually write the story.

When writing openings, think about our favorite movie. What was its opening scene? How did it hook us? I mention movies because that’s one of the main mediums we authors are competing against. Of course, we must also consider our favorite books. Study their opening lines. How did they motivate us to keep reading?

The best opening is the action opening. It begins in medias res (in the middle of things). These openings can start with something spectacular, such as an earthquake, or something seemingly innocent such as a knock on a character’s door. It can also include dialogue. We must either see a character in action or hint that something is about to happen. Also, be sure to mention your character(s) names as soon as possible.

In my Civil War dog story due out this fall, Squire, Tales of a Mascot, I didn’t “clear my throat” by writing lots of narrative background information and description while building up to the main story. Instead, I jumped right into the action. Here are the novel’s first two paragraphs:

“Well, I’d sure as sand say he is going with us.” Jesse Webb sauntered down the wooden steps of his father-in-law’s brick furniture store.

His wife folded her arms, her emerald green hoopskirt spanning its slatted walkway. “Oh no, he’s not.” Her hazel eyes narrowed. “Besides, how could you take the most popular dog in Coughlin? He might get killed.”

Like a man just ambling through the day’s hours, Jesse faced her. Amused, his lips curled up in no great hurry. Then he spoke. “Seems I’d say you’re more worried about Squire than me, dear Rachel.”

In my three opening paragraphs, I did four things:

1.       I introduced the main characters: Jesse, Rachel, and their dog Squire.

2.       I identified the setting, the town of Coughlin.

3.       I created conflict between Jesse and Rachel.

4.       I hinted at future danger for both Jesse and Squire.

Later, we’ll learn what that danger is—Jesse and Squire are going to war.

Instead of clearing our throats when we begin our story, let’s jump right into it!

Next week: Part 2, More Opening Techniques.

Blonde versus Blond

I have a confession to make: the words blonde and blond have sometimes given me trouble.

In British English, blond is masculine and blonde is feminine. However, in American English blond is the correct spelling when it’s used as an adjective whereas in British English the gender spelling always applies.

American English: Suzie has blond hair. The blond girl playing golf is Suzie.

British English: Suzie has blonde hair. The blonde girl playing golf is Suzie.

If these words are used as nouns in American English, they keep their appropriate gender spelling.

Examples: She’s the blonde sitting at the table. He’s the blond smoking the pipe.

Until next time, friends, keep on writing!



Books and Providence

Herman Melville, 1819-1891

“…the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.” Herman Melville, White-Jacket (1850)

History Saves An Admiral’s Life

Admiral Takeo Kurita. His face usually wasn’t as severe as seen in the photo here. According to his daughter as cited in Sea of Thunder, by Evan Thomas, he was suffering from dengue fever and defeat when this photo was taken. By all accounts, he was really a nice guy, amiable and friendly and who often smiled. He was a true gentleman.

My late father, a United States Navy and World War Two veteran, told me many war stories during my growing up years. A corpsman, his battle station was on his cruiser’s main deck. He was assigned the duty of rendering first aid to gunners and other sailors wounded during battles.

One day, while he was in his ship’s stern, a kamikaze (suicide plane) roared out of the clouds and headed straight for him. He’d never seen such a thing before, so he took off running all the way to his ship’s bows while gunners futilely blazed away at the attacking enemy.

The plane missed the stern and splashed into the water not far from the bows where my father stood. This was the only time he ever ran from a kamikaze, he told me, because this experience taught him you could never be sure where one would hit.

The sad truth is this: These poorly-trained Japanese suicide pilots, due to their ignorance of history, were brainwashed by their instructors. They were taught that the code of bushido (the way of the warrior) was to serve their emperor no matter what it cost. They were told it was a good and honorable thing to eagerly sacrifice one’s life for their emperor. It was part of their country’s glorious history. Over three thousand Japanese kamikaze pilots died because they believed this lie.

Admiral Takeo Kurita, who almost defeated the United States Navy in the famous Battle of Leyte Gulf, knew better. His grandfather was a famous scholar and historian, as was his father, a professor at the University of Tokyo. From childhood, he’d learned the true history of his country. Brave warriors in his country’s past didn’t always engage in ritual suicide if they lost a battle, nor did they attack their enemies in reckless“banzai charges,” not even for their emperor. In medieval Japan, emperors didn’t wield a lot of power. The nobles did, that is, the samurais and the lords they served. Medieval Japan’s samurais were similar to Europe’s medieval knights. They fought for different lords, and sometimes switched sides. An eagerness to die recklessly in the name of the emperor wasn’t always a part of Japan’s history and culture.

In fact, bushido didn’t come into prominence in Japan till the late nineteenth century, though it can be traced earlier. Why, the word didn’t even exist before the 1600s. Kurita practiced Confucianism, not Buddhism. Confucianism was the main philosophy that dominated Japan during the seventeenth century and later. Ritual suicide was not a Confucian principle.

Confucianism did find its way into bushido, though. However, it got twisted. In Chinese Confucianism, where the philosophy/religion began, the main duty people had was obeying their parents. In Japan, it was obeying their lord.

Kurita, aware of his country’s history, grieved when he saw these pilots wasting their lives for a lie and on a cause he knew was lost. Bushido wasn’t the true way of the warrior. It was not the way samurais fought in his country’s earlier centuries. He knew that samurais held no moral code until the seventeenth century. Because he knew his history, he didn’t commit seppuku (suicide) after Japan lost. Other Japanese commanders, after losing battles, did. One might say that his knowledge of history saved his life. He lived for many years after the war and died in 1977.

Is history important, then? You bet it is! When we don’t bother to study and learn our history, we set ourselves up for being brainwashed just like those poor kamikaze pilots my father witnessed during the war.

Sources

            Flanagan, Damian. “Bushido: The Awakening of Japan’s Modern Identity,” www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2016/07/16/books/bushido-awakening-  japans-modern-identity/#.XOWK3HdFxMs

            Szczepanski Kallie. “Bushido: The Ancient Code of the Samurai Warrior,” ThoughtCo., January 26, 2019. www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bushido- 195302.

            Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Quick Tip: Listen

Photo by samer daboul on Pexels.com

If your computer has a voice recorder, or if you have another type of recorder such as a cassette player, try reading your manuscript aloud into it. Reading aloud helps writers spot mistakes they may have missed through silent reading. By playing back their words and listening closely, writers hear their prose’s rhythm and pace, spot poorly written dialogue, wordiness, and numerous other stylistic errors.

Writing the Personal Experience Article

Enjoying my favorite fishing spot–Horn Island, off the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Mississippi Sound. I have lots of personal experiences from this place!

One of the best ways to begin a professional writing career in the Christian industry is through personal experience articles. This is how I started. Such articles require little if any research and teach lessons the writer learned from his/her experience.

            Here are four rules for writing them.

1.         The experience must be true. We may not remember our experience’s every detail, but we must try to be as accurate as possible. If others accompanied us during our experience,  we can always ask them questions to refresh our memories. If we teach a negative lesson through our experience (what not to do), we must be the one who learned it. We writers must be secure enough to be vulnerable, which means having a willingness to expose our   shortcomings and mistakes to the world.

2.         The article must have a strong opening. If we don’t hook our readers in the first sentence,  or at least the first paragraph, readers will probably set aside our work and go on to other  things.

3.         The article must use fiction techniques. When we write a personal experience article we’re also telling a story. Like any other story, it must include action, conflict, dialogue, description… all the basic elements fiction requires. If we can’t recall exactly what a person said during our experience, at least write the essence of it. That’s all we can do.

4.         The article must teach a lesson without being preachy. What is preachiness? It’s moralizing on and on, as though lecturing(or preaching) to our readers. Instead of  doing this, let the story itself teach the lesson. At the end of the article, use a short takeaway message and/or Bible verse to reinforce our main point. “Short” is the key word here.     

Well, these are some thoughts on writing the personal experience article. Give it a try!

Till next week, keep tapping those laptop keys!