Possibly the most important part of a story, the bit that draws the reader in or turns them away, are the opening lines. A strong opening line or two can grab your attention, open your mind up to new possibilities, and lead you into the world the author has envisioned. At the other end of the spectrum, a weak opening line can take you somewhere else entirely. It can harm your readers perception of what is to follow. If the first two or three lines are not exciting, or do not take your imagination to a new and interesting place, chances are you will lose the readers interest no matter how good the story that follows may be.
I have learned this. I have had to.
Some background… When I wrote RISE back in 2004 it was never my intention to see it published. It was an experiment and a new hobby. That it was actively sought out for publication by two publishers, one in the US and one in Spain, tells me that there is something there worthwhile, that people might enjoy.
It may be that the first book one writes will always be something that an author looks back on and thinks, “I should have done this better…” For me that will always be the beginning of RISE. Even though I have had feedback and encouragement from many people, there will always be that voice inside that says “It could be better.”
The next book I wrote, AGE OF THE DEAD, a sequel to the first book, has a far better beginning. The opening line came to me as I sat before the computer trying to imagine just what the world would be like a year after the dead rose. I knew I was going to write it first person again, keeping on with Brian Williams’ story and that of his Salvage Team. But I also knew I was abandoning the journal entry format. This book would have more immediacy, more character development, and far more dialogue than RISE.
After I finished AGE OF THE DEAD I took some time to relax. Not too long. I went back and looked over the beginning of that book, and really liked how it started. It wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than the previous book. The opening line, “The stench of the dead permeates everything,” sets the tone right away, and lets you know you may be in for something visceral.
I have started two other books. BLACK HORIZON is a post-apocalyptic SF book that has no zombies in it. Yes, that is correct, not one zombie.
It is still the best thing I have written so far. Here’s the opening paragraph, which came to me in a flash;
Tara Riseman awoke to fire and thunder. Needles retracted from her flesh, withdrawing into the sides of the suspension cocoon as thick blue fluid drained out through holes in the cramped capsule floor. Tara groggily shook her head to clear the fluid from her ears, and the deafening continuous thunder only got louder. She could dimly see red and yellow light through the cocoon’s transparent lid, flickering and flashing. Her stomach registered the all too familiar sensation of falling.
Re-entry, she thought. What’s going on?
I think this opening is strong. I think it immediately grabs the reader and hopefully pulls them in, wanting to learn more about this woman, and why she has awakened in a suspension cocoon that is falling into atmosphere. I admit that my goal with BLACK HORIZON is different from the zombie books. I am not experimenting here. With this book I am setting out to do something specific. Read it to find out what.
I am also writing DEAD INSIDE, the third book in the RISE universe. It is set far from the familiar lands of Cold Lake and the Alberta prairie. Rather it all takes place in the ruins of the Lower Mainland. I have created something called the Mission Safe Zone. There is only one recurring character. It is set eight years after the dead rose up. It begins thus;
Robin Cartwright and Nicholas Bulman ran down the hallway of the ruined hospital, rifles held high in their hands. Her long black hair streaming behind her, Robin leapt over a rusting gurney that had been tipped on its side, and ducked beneath a long extinguished light fixture that was hanging from the ceiling. Nick sprang over the gurney a split second later, shouldering the fixture aside with a grunt. Ahead was the door that led to the rooftop patio, a rectangle of glass and grey-painted steel. To either side long term patient rooms were abandoned and quiet, and light spilled onto the floor from the southern windows. Behind them the dead came in a slow wave. There were eight of them, rotten, mostly naked and unaccountably still moving many years after they had died.
Both of these beginnings have something in common. They both use In Medias Res. They start with characters in peril, as things are happening. Details are left deliberately vague. Specifics are explained later. The characters are named immediately, and you get to know them well within the first pages.
I think I am getting better at this.