“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped through my groin, and so began the most extiting adventure of my career.”
Punchy opening, no? It may suck swamp gas, style wise, but it catches your interest. It’s an inciting incident, what Chris Vogler calls in his wonderful book, The Writer’s Journey, the ‘call to action.’
My little message today, however, is not about hooking the reader’s interest early–we all know that’s essential–but going goose-looney about it. The bang, bang stuff is definitely goose-loony.
A lot of writers get so wound up about kicking the story out of the gate they come up with a dynamite opener that has little or nothing to do with the story. That’s cheating. Disgruntled readers would be justified in hunting you with dogs.
If you hang a banner reading, “Live Nude Guys” in front of your shoe store, you will get some traffic, but it won’t take long for the customers to realize they’ve been cheated. (I realize that “Live Nude Shoes” isn’t a great banner, and might attract a somewhat odder customer base, but you take my drift.) Don’t cheat.
Your opening must do more than draw instant attention. It must pass the Chicken Delight Test. And what would that be, our younger readers ask? There once was an ad that read, “Others make promises, Chicken Delight delivers.”
Start your book with an inciting incident. How do we know it’s the inciting incident? The test: After it happens, nothing will ever be the same again. All the rest of the story will grow out of, and be related to, this incident.
The best inciting incident I ever heard occurs in the first line of the classic country song, “El Paso.” (Original recording by Marty Robbins, later covered by The Grateful Dead and others–look it up.)
The line: “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.”
The whole story grows from this. All the elements are included. The protagonist is introduced, the setting and the conflict revealed, the ending foreshadowed. The whole rest of the tragic story of a young cowboy hopelessly in love, riding to his doom, comes from this event.
So before you set up that slam-bang opening, make sure you can deliver on its promise. Consider our Texas cowboy who ended up seeing the “white puff of smoke from the rifle,” and feeling the bullet go deep in his chest. We knew it was going to happen all along.
Thus, we begin and end our post with small arms fire. For the action/thriller fan, that is satisfactory.
Now, go craft a hot opening that delivers on its promise. To accomplish that you will probably have to WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED.