I had a discussion with an editor a few weeks ago and she told me about the hundreds of submissions she looks at every year. She glanced at me and said, “I can’t tell you how many of them start with the weather. If I’ve got to give a budding novelist one bit of advice, unless it’s a key part of your opening chapter, never, never, never write about the weather.”
What’s that old cliché opening line? “It was a dark and stormy night.”
My wife is out of town so I can watch anything I want on Netflix. Last night I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the millionth time. The opening scene in that movie is classic.
The intrepid adventurer in the fedora, traveling with a troupe of shady characters through an Amazonian forest. Indian Jones, coming upon the tomb in the thick of the jungle, filled with bats and spiders and traps. Indie taking the weird golden icon and outrunning the giant boulder, only to find himself ambushed by jungle natives. Then watching Indiana Jones run for his life, swimming to the airplane, and upon getting into the plane, his seatmate is a snake named Reggie. We find out Indian has, of all things, a fear of snakes. When he complains, the pilot says, “Show some backbone.”
During a book event last year, I was asked if I thought European mysteries move more slowly than American mysteries. I simply answered, yes!
American readers are impatient. They want to be gripped immediately and taking for a tense, page turning thrill ride.
I try to do that with my Geneva Chase mystery series. In my first book, Random Road, I open with six nude bodies found hacked to death in a mansion on an island. I’d originally written the scene with two people found dead, decided to spice it up by adding two more bodies. By the time I was done, I’d made it a six-pack.
Do you always have to start a mystery with a murder? But you still have to start by grabbing the reader by the collar. In my second novel, Darkness Lane, the book opens with Geneva, my intrepid crime reporter, finding out that her fifteen-year-old ward’s best friend (also fifteen) has disappeared.
Well, I’m fudging a little. In that same scene we find out that a woman who’s been physically and mentally abused for years finally snapped. She waited until her husband is drunk and passed out, covers him in gasoline and lights a match. As the fire department struggles to quell the spreading flames, the cops find her outside with a glass of wine. When they ask her what happened, she says, “I’m just toasting my husband.”
My third book, Graveyard Bay, has the darkest opening of all. Geneva is watching the scene unfold in the middle of winter at a marina where two nude bodies are found under the icy surface of the bay, chained to the prongs of a massive forklift used to lift boats in and out of the water. Brrrrrr.
Just a couple of books I’ve read this year with dynamite opening chapters.
One is Don Winslow’s The Border. This book starts out with a prologue in which the protagonist is caught up in an active mass shooting. You have no idea what it’s about and won’t really learn until nearly the end of this 720 page thriller. But it’s a page turner if there ever was one about drug cartels and politics and the parallels to what’s going on today are incredible.
The other book is a mystery called Head Wounds by Dennis Palumbo. It starts out with “Miles Davis saved my life”. A domestic dispute outside his home explodes into violence and a gunshot nearly kills Daniel Rinaldi. After that, the tension and the action never stops. You can’t put this one down.
To end up where I began, none of these books starts by talking about the weather.