Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Opening Statement

by David Ellis

Sorry in advance if this blog entry is a little short. I was just in Paris, and I planned to write today’s entry there, but then there was an incident, and I had to leave in a hurry before the authorities could question me.

I read in Sean’s entry a few days ago about how hard it is to get a book started. A lot of what he said rang true to me, but slightly altered. My problem isn’t the beginning, and it’s never the end—I always know how a book is going to end when I start it. (Probably the trial lawyer in me, start preparing your case by planning your closing argument.) No, for me, it’s those pesky 350 pages in between that are the problem.

I love openings. They are easily my favorite part of the book. You introduce yourself to the reader. You set the tone. You grab hold of them. You tell them, this is how I write, these are my characters, get in and buckle up.

I especially love opening sentences, a micro-version of what I just described. You can outline the hook. You can set a dramatic first scene. You can reveal your protagonist’s personality. On a good day, you can do all three. So many possibilities, because you haven’t yet backed yourself into a corner, something I’ve done in every book.

“Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me.”

That might be my favorite opening, from The Libertine at the Steppenwolf, John Malkovich in the lead. Such a self-indulgent, ominous and challenging warning to the viewer.

I remember Victor Gischler’s opening in Gun Monkeys, where Charlie is driving down a highway, bemoaning the fact that he forgot to put plastic down in the trunk of his car, which he now regretted in light of the fact that a decapitated corpse resided back there. I pretty much understood what Charlie did, who he was, and how he felt about it in that opening sentence.

I also have to say that Lee Child’s new one, Gone Tomorrow, which I haven’t finished, has a terrific grabber. Lee’s usually good for that, but this one is the best he’s done, in my opinion.

Maybe it’s all in how you approach writing. I know what Sean means, and what Joyce Carol Oates meant, as well, but unless I have a firm idea of where the book is going, I usually begin writing my novel by searching for the most compelling opening I can write and then trying to keep up, so to speak, with the car rolling down the hill. I let the tail wag the dog. (No other clich├ęs spring to mind, sorry.) And yes, sometimes my directionless opening will reach a dead end, and I will go back and change the opening to match what I have ultimately written. But starting that way is usually the best way for me to get the blood flowing, and it’s the most fun. Hey, I still have the next 350 pages to be miserable, before I get to the finale. The end is my second-favorite part of the story.

By the way, it looks like that incident in Paris is going to work out okay for me. They couldn’t find the weapon. And they never will.


RaB said...

The blog opening & closing really sucked me in! Still laughing out loud and wondering about this incident and how our protagonist got away clean.

David Ellis said...

Thanks, RaB. I think I'll take the Fifth, like any good lawyer would....