Friday, February 13, 2009

For Openers - Knock Some Socks Off by Robert "Sock'em" Walker

Most articles and books giving advice on writing spend a lot of time on the opening line, the opening paragraph, the opening page(s), or the Openers, or what in film is called the "establishing shots." Whatever you call it, you want it to "crackle" with verve and life; you want something "happening" or some sense of danger, what David Morrell calls "heat on the page."

But such advice is typically directed at the first chapter or prologue, when in fact every chapter needs be opening with a great and enticing "opening" or "establishing shot." From my work in progress take a look at these three openings for prologue, chapter one, scene two, chapter one – three all told. See how each is made to "crackle" with life. The prologue opens with dialogue—in the middle of conversation, and I think enticing conversation between conspirators, one of whom is our hero, whereas Chapter One places the reader inside the mind of a practicing witch (her point of view), and all her conversation is with herself and a doll stuck with pins. Chapter Two returns to our hero who is journeying to his dark destination to bring down a man of power, the same man of power the witch wants to harm. In Two, our hero only has his horse to talk to but again there is dialogue and movement. Something happening on every page. Finally, Chapter Three opens in the mind (POV) of our hero's object—his nemesis, the minister at Salem Village. These are the establishing shots and I hope they demonstrate how important each opening is and not simply that of your first chapter or prologue. Four examples follow:



Boston, March 5, 1692

“You want me to go into Salem Village Parish disguised as a man of the cloth and that doesn’t offend you or your father?” Jeremiah Wakely asked, shock written across his handsome features.
“Not in the least!” Reverend Cotton Mather fired back.
“Not in the least,” parroted Jeremiah, pushing aside a shock of raven-black hair.
“Not so long as it provides us with what we need, Brother Wakley.” The two men had walked the length of the public area of the great North Church of Boston from rear pew to altar. “Look here, Jeremiah, my friend, you’ll have no problem ingratiating yourself with this Reverend Samuel Parris.”
“I am not so sure, sir? Not from what I’ve read in the court records your father provided.”
Chapter One's Opener)

Swampscott, Essex County, Massachusetts, March 6, 1692 at the midnight hour

At two-score-ten and four, the woman in tattered clothes chewed tobacco, lit a candle, shakily stood alone in the abandoned McTeagh cabin, then waddled straight for her hidden magic needles and the doll.
The doll she’d paid dearly for was fashioned by Sam Wardwell, both blacksmith and cunning man, some openly called the Wizard of Andover. Sarah had made several trips to make payments, and each time Wardwell would display the doll in its progress from wood to realism. Sarah Goode believed the man a magician.
Further, Wardwell asked no questions beyond her specifications. He kept mum, too, and never knew that his creation was in the image of Betty Parris; that it was a doll that’d do harm to Reverend Samuel Parris’ eleven-year-old, little Elizabeth Junior, named for her mother.
The doll, once stuck full with pins—as Parris’s Barbados servant, Tituba Indian, had instructed—would thereby inflict pain on the minister’s daughter; thereby inflicting suffering on the minister himself. But only if Sarah used a lock of the child’s real hair, pinned to a swath of cloth belonging to the child made into a pouch harboring the child’s nail clippings. All items Sarah had bartered from the hands of Tituba, the Barbados witch and servant to the Reverend Samuel Parris. Aside from a few pretty shells and a green bottle, all that Tituba had wanted from the bargain was that Sarah Goode eventually destroy Reverend Parris.

Chapter Two Opener:

Watch Hill, outside Salem Village, same time

Jeremiah Wakely in black riding cape reined in his pale horse and brought the gray-speckled mare to a soft trot. They rounded the base of the gravelly hill that he recognized as Watch Hill. Must be careful . . . discreet. He urged the horse now up the gentle slope beneath the moonlight. Must arrive in Salem Village without notice. “Perhaps an impossibility?” he asked the horse, leaning in to pat the animal.
As Jeremiah and his horse Dancer scaled the ancient hill, he wondered if it had not been a mistake to make this pact with Mather. Wondered if he shouldn’t ‘ve told both ministers the previous night—and in no uncertain terms that he was…what? Uncertain? “Hardly strong enough language for what ails ye tonight, eh, Wakely?” he spoke aloud to himself in the cold night air. Any moment now, he expected to see Higginson coming up the other side of this wretched hill, but so far no sign of the man.
In a pace that stirred so much emotion in Jeremy, he wondered if the Mathers, and now Higginson, had not placed their confidence in his ability to remain neutral and above the fray possible. An attitude necessary to accomplish what amounted to a conspiracy against Reverend Parris. Am I the right man for this affair? Suppose the others wrong? Suppose I’m the worst possible choice for this grim and complicated undertaking? Am I up to it?
Then there was the fear that had welled up and engorged his heart with every hoof beat bringing him closer to Salem and Serena. His mind played over this fear…played over the moment that he’d most assuredly again lay eyes on her.

Chapter Three Opener:

At the parsonage door in Salem Village, 1:20AM, March 7, 1692

Broad shouldered, a tall man, Reverend Samuel Parris felt the walls of the small parish home—his property by way of contractual agreement with his flock—closing in on him. The stairwell proved so tight that Parris could hardly make it up the narrow passage to his daughter’s room, where he looked in on little Betty, who’d been battling the a fever—symptoms of the auge so often seen in little ones. Betty slept fitfully, as if assailed by nightmares, but at least she slept. Her cousin, the Reverend’s niece, slept too but in a separate bed in the corner.
Every inch of space was accounted for and filled.
Parris slammed a balled fist into his palm and muttered, “Damn my bloody dissenting brethren.” He referred to a faction within his flock. People who resented him and begrudged him this ordinary place with its modest yard and orchard, hardly large enough for his family, hardly more than a common Barbados army barracks. Yet many– too many–begrudged him. Nearly half the village parishioners in fact, and they’d taken to withholding tithes and fees and his rate. As a result, he’d had to find other means of support.

And so it goes. I strive especially hard and do many, many, many rewrites for each opening. It behooves the author to reach out an easily reached hand to guide the reader from one place to the next, from one point of view to the next, from one time period or moment to the next, and in those "major shifts" between scenes or chapters, you have to be extra, extra careful to not lose the reader's interest and not to lose the reader himself!
Happy Writing One and All 'til next time –
Rob Walker


Morgan Mandel said...

You know that woman has to be strange if she chews tobacco.

Morgan Mandel

Morgan Mandel said...

You know that woman has to be strange if she chews tobacco.

Morgan Mandel

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Great opening lines, you never disappoint, Mr. Walker.