The Opening Gambit

Some books on writing urge the writer to set out the plot problem clearly as soon as possible. The first page is not too soon — the first paragraph, even. But is this good advice?

Sometimes it is. The opening paragraph of Ross MacDonald’s Find a Victim shows the technique working flawlessly:

He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who ever thumbed me. He rose on his knees in the ditch. His eyes were black holes in his yellow face, his mouth a bright smear of red like a clown’s painted grin. The arm he raised overbalanced him. He fell forward on his face again. I stamped the brake-pedal and backed a hundred yards to where he lay….

As the reader will have no trouble detecting, the hitchhiker isn’t a hitchhiker at all. He has been shot. He will soon be dead. The narrator (private eye Lew Archer) will spend the rest of the book trying to work out who shot him, and why. The “hitchhiker” is the plot problem. An opener doesn’t get much more direct than that.

But that’s crime fiction. In other sorts of fiction, if they’re well written, the opener may be and probably should be much less direct.

Mervyn Peake’s fantasy classic Titus Groan is perhaps an extreme example. It opens with a description of Gormenghast, the castle itself. We then meet a character named Rottcodd and learn about the annual presentation of the Bright Carvings. But Rottcodd is not an important character, and the Bright Carvings play no role at all in the story. Several pages pass before Flay arrives and tells Rottcodd that Lady Groan has given birth to a boy. And that isn’t important either. The boy is the title character, Titus Groan, but he plays no part in the subsequent action, because he’s a baby. More pages pass before we encounter Steerpike, the villain or anti-hero of the story, and even then it’s not at all clear what Steerpike is up to. He himself doesn’t know.

What captivates the reader about this opening is not that there’s a clear call to or cause for action. The opening is utterly mysterious. And that’s the point of it. It draws us in by not being clear.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful Sharing Knife quartet (a four-volume fantasy series that tells one continuous story) is more recent and more mainstream than Titus Groan. As it opens, Fawn is walking down a country road, alone. We don’t know where she has come from, or why she’s headed off to the town of Glassforge. We’re told the food she packed for the journey has been making her sick, but many pages will pass before we learn that this is morning sickness. Fawn is 17, pregnant, and alone. She encounters Dag early on, but she’s hiding in a tree. A couple of chapters will slide by before they meet. At a basic level, we could say that Fawn’s plot problem is that she’s alone, and that the problem will be solved when she finds someone to be with. (Of course it will be Dag.) But they’ll be a couple well before the end of the first volume — and that’s not the real plot problem.

Eventually Dag and Fawn are going to transform the society in which they live, or at least start a much-needed transformation. The Sharing Knife is, in its bare bones, Romeo & Juliet with a happy ending. The farmers and the patrollers will get over their long enmity and learn to unite against the real enemy, and they’ll learn it because Fawn (a farmer) and Dag (a patroller) show them how. But you’re not going to find a word about that in the opening. The story unfolds in a leisurely way.

We might also consider E. M. Forster’s charming novel A Room with a View. For long stretches, the story seems to meander without getting much of anywhere. Some English people are on vacation in Italy, and dramatic events are in short supply. Eventually the story builds to a surprisingly suspenseful climax: Is Lucy actually going to marry the wrong man? Misunderstandings and social pressure seem to leave her no choice! The opening scene seems to contain no hint at all of the impending problem. She does meet George (the right man). As she’s leaving the table in the hotel dining room she nods to him and he smiles. But the casual reader could be forgiven for concluding that this is just a chance encounter, that the novel will be about something else entirely.

Forster gives us only the most subtle of hints — the kind of thing most readers will miss until they read the book a second time. First, “The curtains at the end of the room parted, and revealed a clergyman.” Then, as Lucy gets up to leave the room, “She hastened after her cousin, who had already disappeared through the curtains — curtains which smote one in the face, and seemed heavy with more than cloth.”

That’s what a fine writer does. We’re being told that this story is about a marriage, but we’re told using a clergyman and some curtains!

If you can write like that, you don’t need any damned hitchhikers.

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