Showing posts with label openings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label openings. Show all posts

Saturday, November 15

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Humor

Six Ways To Begin A Story: Humor

Humorous Openings

I think that comedy and drama go hand in hand and, clearly, I’m not the only one.

(BTW, this post is part of a series on story openings. Here’s the first post: Six Ways To Begin A Story. At the bottom of that post there’s an index to all the other posts.)

These days even non-writers know who Vince Gilligan is. Breaking Bad has zoomed past popular to become a cultural phenomenon. And it’s obvious why. The show is well written, well acted, well produced. There’s something, though, I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about. I came across it the other day when I listened to the Breaking Bad insider podcast. Gilligan said that every scene had to have two things: a goal and something humorous. Gilligan believes that comedy and drama are two muscles in the same arm. (see: Vince Gilligan and the Dark Comedy of ‘Breaking Bad’)

Which brings us to the question ...

What’s funny?

What’s funny varies from person to person. One person will love puns while another can’t stand them, one person laughs at things another would find insulting. And so on. But, really, this isn’t all that different from prose writing. One person loves science fiction, another hates it. One person likes fantasy, another rolls their eyes at it. And so on.

Still, people can learn to be funnier. 

In what follows I’m going to look at five openings that made me chuckle then I’m going to try and take them apart and ask: WHY were these funny? What is it about them that made me grin?

Examples of humorous opening lines

The examples below are from the article 30 Funniest Opening Lines of Books.

1. “I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.” (Breaking Up by William H. Manville)

2. “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” (The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson)

3. “For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple. I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.” (Seven Up by Janet Evanovich)

4. “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” (A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean)

5. “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.’” (The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul by Douglas Adams)

So, again, my question is: What characteristic, what property, what aspect of these openings makes them funny?

The Principles of Humor

This section heading is somewhat tongue in cheek since I don’t believe there are any hard and fast rules to being funny. There is no algorithm that will produce the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld. The principles that follow are merely starting points, gestures toward something one must find within themselves.

1. Repetition

Repetition sets up a joke by creating an expectation. When this expectation is subverted we often smile (or laugh or howl or whatever) if it’s done cleverly. There are various kinds of repetition.

a. The Rule of Three

“Writing comedically usually requires establishing a pattern (with the setup) and then misdirecting the reader (with the punch line). One simple way of doing this is to pair two like ideas in a list and then add a third, incongruent, idea. [...] Here’s an example of a sentence using the Rule of Three: Losing weight is simple: Eat less, exercise more and pay NASA to let you live in an anti-gravity chamber.” (How to Write Better Using Humor)

Here’s another example, this time from Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett:

“Many phenomena – wars, plagues, sudden audits – have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.” 

Here the first two items in the list are wars and plagues. Nasty stuff. Not the sort of thing people laugh about. Then: sudden audits. We’re not talking about the same level of soul-sucking horror, but ... Anyone who’s had to do their taxes gets the joke.

b. Expressions

I said, above, that certain kinds of comedy rely on misdirection. This works especially well with phrases your readers have heard/read many times and are, perhaps, slightly bored of. Cliches. As Leigh Anne Jasheway mentions, if one writes, “You can lead a horse to water …” readers can’t help but anticipate reading “… but you can’t make him drink.” When that expectation is subverted the reader is ever so slightly confused, but there’s something pleasant about looking at something old in a new way. We’re a curious species. 

Leigh Anne Jasheway uses the title of Sarah Snell Cooke’s Credit Union Times article as an example: “You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Can’t Make Him THINK.” She writes:

“Don’t limit yourself to old idioms: Cliché jokes can work with any widely known catchphrase, title, lyric or piece of literature (say, Dr. Seuss). Lyla Blake Ward’s book How to Succeed at Aging Without Really Dying, for example, is titled with a play on the well-known musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. You also don’t need to confine your creativity to just replacing a word or two.” (How to Write Better Using Humor)

A final example because I love his writing: The title to Terry Pratchett’s book “The Fifth Elephant.”

2. Comparisons

In Five Practical Tips on Writing Humor Alex Shvartsman writes that the comparison joke is a writer’s best friend. His example: 

The Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.

That’s good. As Alex Shvartsman points out, your audience has to know a bit about both the Game of Thrones and Twitter for this joke to work, but if they do, it’s funny. 

3. The Absurd and Hyperbole

Woody Allen in his article, Money Can Buy Happiness—As If, writes:

“The final tragedy was Milo Vorpich. When Merrill Lynch went under, Vorpich put everything he owned into his mattress. All deposits and withdrawals were made from his Sealy Posturepedic.”

That made me smile. The image of a banker making deposits and withdrawals from ... not just a mattress, but a specific kind of mattress, a Sealy Posturepedic. It’s absurd. The two ideas the joke is based on (keeping money in a mattress and someone making deposits and withdrawals from a bank account) are perfectly normal, but put them together and the result is pleasantly absurd.

The openings classified:

I promised I would talk about which principles were involved in the examples I chose, so lets go through them. I’ll look at three things: a. repetition, b. comparison, c. the absurd.

1. (“I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.”) 

a. Repetition. The first part of the sentence sets up an expectation. How do men usually feel about their wives leaving them? One imagines they’d be sad. Manville subverts this expectation. There’s no repetition here, but, still, the first part of the sentence is strong enough to set up a clear expectation.

b. There is a comparison. How other men feel vs how the narrator feels.

c. The absurd. Yes, I think this qualifies. Not many men would help their wives pack ... well, unless their idea of helping was to throw her things out the window!

2. (“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”) 

The principles involved, here, seem essentially identical to (1). Again, there’s no repetition as such, but whatever I expected to read after the first sentence, it wasn’t “Somebody had to.”) Also, there seems to be an implicit comparison, the people who come from Des Moines (if we are to believe the author, a set of one) and everyone else. I’m not sure, though, if suggesting that no one other than the author has left the town qualifies as absurd. 

3. (“For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple. I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.”)

I’m beginning to see a pattern here! It seems that what all the sentences I chose as examples share is: they subverted my expectations in a way I thought was clever.

That’s it! If you have an example of a humorous opening you especially liked, please share it.

My series on story openings is nearly done, only one is left: archetypes. I’ll try and get to that on Monday. Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: "Laughing Up A Storm" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 3

Conflict: What Is It Good For?

Conflict: What Is It Good For?

It seems to me that there are six general ways to open a story. The first way, as I discussed last week, is with description. The second way to open a story is with conflict.


We are told this over and over again: every story needs some conflict. Many times, when we think about conflict we think about violent action. For example:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” (The Gunslinger by Stephen King)

No bullets were fired but one feels it wouldn’t go well for the the man in black were the gunslinger to catch him.

Another example:

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” (The Trial by Franz Kafka)

Being arrested when one has not done anything truly wrong is not good. We have an immediate sense of the stakes: life and death. Also, though, one wonders: If he didn’t do anything truly wrong, then what was the charge? Why was he arrested?

Or even:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. (Murphy by Samuel Beckett)

There is no violence here, not even implied violence. But there is conflict. This sentence seems to imply that the protagonist lives a boring life in a boring world and longs for something that will interest him or give him pleasure. The question: Will he find it?

The Purpose of Conflict

Why does a story need conflict? Or, to put it another way, what does conflict do for a story, why does it keep folks turning pages? I think it’s because conflict raises questions in a reader’s mind. It makes us curious

Conflict, by its very nature, implies a goal and so asks a question: will the goal be attained? If I walked into a room and two people were at fisticuffs I would wonder: 

- Why are they fighting? (motivation)
- What are they fighting for? (goal)

The reason for the upset could be as mundane as one fellow spilled his drink on the other. In this case the goal might be the satisfaction of having exacted payment for the infraction.

Not the most exciting stuff, granted, but—just thinking about it now—I can’t think of any conflict that wouldn’t bring questions along with it. (Perhaps you can, though. If so, please leave a comment!)

Conflict raises questions and questions create narrative drive.

Asking questions is what writers want readers to do. Why? Because it generates narrative drive.

As Lee Child says, if a person is presented with a question they’ll tend to stick around until it’s answered. We can’t help ourselves! It’s the way we’re wired. (Okay, maybe not you, but most people.)

For example, let’s say that before a commercial break we’re asked who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. We might not care who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, but chances are more people will stick around because the question was asked than if it hadn’t been. (BTW, the recipient was Doris Lessing.)

Here’s how Child put it:

"[H]umans are hard-wired to want the answer to a question. When the remote control was invented, it threw the TV business through a loop. How would you keep people around during a commercial? So TV producers started posing a question at the start of the commercial break, and answering it when the program returned. (Think sports—Who has the most career grand slams?) Even if you don’t care about the answer, Child said, you stick around because you’re intrigued." (Lee Child at Thrillerfest 2012)

That’s it for conflict! Next time we’ll look at puzzle openings. (Or should I say, “Will we look at puzzle openings next time? Who knows! Stay tuned.)

Friday, October 31

Six Ways To Begin A Story

Six Ways To Begin A Story

Openings are frustrating. At least for me. So much is riding on them. Often, if you don’t catch your reader’s interest with the first sentence their eye will wander.

It seems to me there are 6 general kinds of openings. I’m sure you could make a case for their being 5 or 7 or some other number, but I’m going to hold firm—for now at least—with 6.

Let’s start with ...


Some stories open by describing the story world. For example:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

That is the first line of, that’s right, “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. This sentence is about where and who, there isn’t even a trace, a smidgeon, of conflict. 

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

That’s the first line from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” Again, no visible conflict.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

You likely recognize that sentence, it’s the first sentence from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Paul Clifford.” This sentence is famous, or infamous, for being the epidomy of what one does not want to do when it comes to descriptive openings. I think the sentence begins all right (but then and again I’m a fan of dark and story nights) but then it meanders somewhat drunkenly toward the whimsically unconnected. 

So, having seen the good and the bad, why might we want to open with description? Two reasons.

A. The setting, the world, is why we’re interested in the story.

As Orson Scott Card mentions in his book “Characters & Viewpoint,” some stories are primarily about a milieu while others are primarily about characters, ideas or events. In Milieu stories we’re interested in the world at least as much—perhaps more—than we are the characters. Or, rather, the world is a character and it’s the one we’re the most interested in.

What we’re really interested in is the cultures of that world, the alien biologies, the customs, the inventions, the magic, and so on.

I’ve already mentioned the first line of “The Hobbit” (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”) That’s information about the world, and it’s interesting information. My response as a child was, “What! Hobbits live in holes in the ground?! How cool is that. And what on earth is a hobbit?” Right from the beginning I was eager to learn about this universe.

Here’s another way of creeping up on the point I’ve been trying to make: If exploring the world is the whole point of the story, then it’s perfectly appropriate to alert people to this from the first sentence.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that Gibson’s “Neuromancer” was a milieu story—I think it might be more of an idea story—but whatever the case (punny, punny)—the world that Gibson created was certainly creative and different and utterly captivating.

B. To establish a particular mood.

Charlie Jane Anders, author of the article, “How To Create A Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story,” writes:

“This [scene-setting] can be a workmanlike "Smith yawned and looked around his space capsule" thing. Or it can be a gorgeous literary flourish, that sets the mood and creates a strong image in the reader's mind at the start of the story.”

An example: The beginning of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I wrote about this recently (On Breaking The Rules) because it breaks one of the canards of writing: Don’t begin a story with a character waking up. But Flynn does! And—as millions of satisfied readers will attest—it works beautifully.

Why? Because those opening paragraphs set the mood of the book. They anchor us within Nick’s psyche. Because they set the stage for what is to come. (And, last but certainly not least, because they were beautiful and powerful.)

That’s it for today! As I mentioned, this post is part of a planned series. Future posts will cover other sorts of openings.

Update: Here are links to the posts in this series:

1. Description (this post)
2. Conflict: What Is It Good For?
3. Puzzle Openings
4. Archetypal Openings
5. Character Driven Openings
6. Humorous Openings

Photo credit: "aussicht vom wilseder berg (169,2m)" by fRedi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, April 16

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?

In previous posts I've written about Stephen King and how his prose possesses the almost magical quality of being able to draw me into his story world. (See: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.)

King gets me to care so deeply about his characters, to identify with them so fully, that even though I'm scared to death and half convinced a decomposing mummy has taken up residence under my bed (it's just waiting for me to stick an unprotected foot over the side), even so, I can't stop reading.

Lately, though, I've been reading less of the King of Horror and more of the Queen of Crime. In a previous post (How To Write Like Agatha Christie) I mentioned that Christie's books have sold 4 billion copies, making her the best selling novelist of all time. (see also: Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules and How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs)

What's her secret?

Of course she didn't have one. There is no piece of writing wisdom that, if whispered over an open grave at the exact moment of the vernal equinox, will transform one's prose into the equivalent of catnip for readers. Not even if it's spoken in latin. (More's the pity.)

No, but Agatha Christie did have a bit of Stephen King's magic. She had the knack of making her characters interesting, companionable. She had the knack of making us care about them, for making it matter to us whether they were murdered or falsely accused.

I've always liked Christie's characters, they have always felt like the sort of people I would enjoy spending an evening with--well, most of them. Since one of these wonderfully charming people is a cold blooded killer I doubt I could ever become too comfortable!

The Opening Paragraphs of Murder at the Vicarage

Let's take a look at the opening to the first Miss Marple mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage. This book was published in 1930, four years after Christie's great success with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In fact, Christie acknowledged that the character of Caroline Sheppard was a prototype for Miss Marple.

Vicarage was written in first person from the perspective of--you guessed it--the vicar. Here's how it begins:

"It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage. The conversation, though in the main irrelevant to the matter in hand, yet contained one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments.

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that any one who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.

"My young nephew, Dennis, said instantly:

"'That'll be remembered against you when the old boy is found bathed in blood. Mary will give evidence, won't you, Mary? And describe how you brandished the carving knife in a vindictive manner.'

"Mary, who is in service at the Vicarage as a stepping‑stone to better things and higher wages, merely said in a loud, businesslike voice, "Greens," and thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner."

1. Early Character Development

Christie gets right to it. Although the murder doesn't occur for another five chapters she wastes no time letting her readers know what kind of book they're reading. She even gives us a broad hint about who is going to die and, for good measure, teases us with the idea that the murderer will turn out to be the vicar, or at least that he will be suspected of the crime. But he isn't, though it does get things off to a quick and interesting start.

Also, in that first paragraph we're told that the current scene contains "one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments." Right off the bat, the reader is busy hunting for clues and asking themselves which are the important bits and which are the red herrings.

2. Light, Witty, Tone

One thing that jumps out at me immediately is the tone of the passage. It's light, witty, tongue firmly in cheek. 

Christie pokes a bit of fun at the vicar, letting the reader see him as an old curmudgeon with a not-so-hidden soft streak. Dennis teases the vicar and then Christie effortlessly points the camera at Mary. In the same gently mocking tone we are told she is "in service at the Vicarage as a stepping-stone to better things" and then we are shown that she is an abominable housekeeper (she "thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner"). 

Further, all the things Christie shows us are character traits which are connected to significant threads in the story itself. Mary's abominable housekeeping (and the vicar's wife's even more abominable housekeeping) is connected to at least one major clue and sets up one of the main sources of conflict between the vicar and Griselda: her unsuitability for the life of a parson's wife. 

Griselda's unsuitability--or, rather, his unsuitability for her--leads the vicar to worry she is having an affair, but everything is tied up nicely in the end when Christie reveals that much of Griselda's odd behavior is due to the fact that she has been keeping a secret: she's pregnant! And very nervous about how her husband is going to take the news. Of course everything is tied up at the end with a bow and the soon-to-be parents are happy as blissful clams.

3. Opens With Action

In the first few paragraphs there are no descriptive passages. We aren't told what color the wallpaper is or about its design. We don't know what anyone is wearing and we don't know what any of the character's look like. 

But we do know the important bits. We have a decent, though rough, idea of what each character's character is (I wish there was a more graceful way of saying that!). It is as though, with one or two strokes of her brush, Christie brought these characters to life. Not, perhaps, in the same way Stephen King does in, say, The Shining, but that's fine. Personally, I find it difficult--though (disturbingly) not impossible--to imagine King writing an English cosy. 

Colonel Protheroe, the character who will be the victim, is mentioned in dialogue so, naturally, there's no description of him. Nevertheless we learn everything about him we need to know: he is so impossible to deal with that even a man of the cloth would dearly love to stick a carving knife in him.

4. Intimate

Agatha Christie's tone is intimate. Inviting. Wry. She writes:

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) [...]" 

In a first person narrative the protagonist speaks directly to the reader, but this isn't always glaringly obvious. In that aside to the reader--"remarkably tough by the way"--it feels to me as though the vicar took a break from his narrative, leaned close to me, and whispered a companionable warning about the quality of the beef. 

Here we have not just a narrator speaking to a reader, they are gossiping. And it feels intimate and personal. That's the sort of thing a friend, a companion, would do. And that's the sort of thing--these little intimate peeks inside a character's soul--that draws me, as a reader, into a story. That sense of character, that sense of ... for lack of a better term ... aliveness

This is something I've noticed about Stephen King's prose as well. I'm going to blog about it in the next few days so I won't go into it in depth here, but if you have a copy close at hand, take a look at the first few paragraphs of The Shining.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Back? Good. That first line: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick," is shockingly intimate. It is as though we can read Jack's mind (it is almost as though, we too, have the shining). This tells us not only about the person Jack Torrance is speaking to, it tells us a lot about Jack Torrance himself. 

(I would argue that King's first sentence is a lot like Christie's aside about the quality of the beef. Both are intimate, private, remarks make by characters who are reaching beyond the page to connect with you.)

As I reread those initial passages of The Shining I kept thinking, yes, Mr. Ullman isn't the warmest, nicest, person in the world, but there's really nothing wrong with him. Yes he probably looks down on Jack as a mere functionary, but, really, that's how Jack sees himself. What one word seems to sum up the Jack Torrance of those early passages? I'd say: angry. And that's one of the themes of the book, perhaps the dominant theme: Jack's anger and how he deals--or doesn't deal--with it.

Okay, I'd say that's enough for now. In the future I want to analyse two other books by Christie, their openings, in an attempt to pick up clues as to how she wove her spell. Will there be a common thread? Stay tuned!

Posts about Stephen King:

Photo credit: "Belvedere Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 4

3 Elements Of A Great Story Opening

3 Elements Of A Great Story Opening

1. Action

Begin with action, movement, danger.

According to Christine Fonseca in her fabulous article, Three Elements of a Great Opening, the trick is to start close to an emotional event, but not so close that the reader feels confused and can't figure out what's going on.

Also, readers need to know something about a character to truly care about them.

This is a grizzly example, but think of the difference between watching a stranger lying on a stretcher being wheeled into an ambulance and watching a friend. I would feel bad for the stranger but I would be in tears for the person I knew.

Get your readers to care about your characters and then brutalize them.

2. Characters

Have something happen (action) that makes your readers care about your protagonist. Often showing him or her as the object of an undeserved misfortune will do the trick.

3. Intrigue

You want a strong hook early in the story, preferably the first sentence (see: Different Kinds Of Story Openings: Shock And Seduction).

Your readers need to care about the answer to a question (but no need to stop at one!). For instance, here's the first sentence of Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (the first book of the HBO series True Blood was based on):
I'd been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.
Why had she been waiting?
Who was the vampire?
Why was the vampire in the bar?

What is your favorite story opening? Favorite first line?

Other articles you might like:

- Kris Rusch: Don't Accept A Book Advance Of Less Than $100,000
- How to record an audiobook at home
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Photo credit: "Good morning bokeh" by Pavel ahmed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.