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How's This For Openers?
by Phil Geusz
©2001 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved

Harry Harrison remains one of my very favorite writers, though not one I seem to discuss here very often. He is perhaps best known for his brilliant Stainless Steel Rat series, a semi-tongue-in-cheek and often riotously funny series of tales about a future gangster named "Slippery Jim" Di Griz. I've read and appreciated all of these tales, and hope someday for more of them to be written. However, what is not quite so well known is that this entire series, the kind of series of books that can make an entire career, was brought about via a very simple writing exercise.

Though Mr. Harrison is a far more successful writer than myself (after all, almost everyone is) he and I agree that by far the most important paragraph in any story is the very first one. It should serve as a narrative hook, a device that involves the reader emotionally and makes him want to read more. Therefore, according to this approach, it should describe some sort of interesting situation, or incorporate some other sort of gimmickry. For many years Mr. Harrison used to write and catalogue such first sentences and opening sequences as a sort of writer's exercise in his spare time. One of these openers proved to be so compelling that it led to the entire "Rat" series. It involved an overly-calm police officer trying to arrest Di Griz during a sensational getaway, and then having a thousand-pound weight dropped on his head. From the resulting hole in the floor, the policeman's voice hesitated for just a split second before reproachfully adding the charge of assaulting an officer to the list. The cop was a robot, of course.

Recently a writer sent me the beginning of a tale that showed real promise, all except for the opening paragraph. It began something like this (though I'll not quote or even paraphrase him for privacy's sake). "The teacher was a very ordinary guy, though a bit short tempered. He wondered who might today feel the weight of his anger."

Basically the whole paragraph was simple character description, yet the second paragraph (and the rest of the tale written to date) was really quite engaging. Upon typing in my suggestion that he should simply drop the first paragraph and begin with the second, I came slowly to realize that I had given that same advice many, many times over the past few years and so decided to try and show exactly what I mean. Let's give it a try, shall we?

Compare and consider the two following story openings. Which tale would you be likely to read more of? Which engages you more thoroughly? Why?

   Bill was a big, ugly lout with personal hygiene problems. He had a history of severe racism, and often sneered at females. Even his own family disliked him strongly.    "All them Jew-boy peckerheads are like that!" Bill grumbled into his beer. "All of 'em! And them Jewesses is the worst!"
   Tom blushed a deep red, hoping that none of the other patrons would overhear what he was being forced to listen to and perhaps assume that he might agree with it. "Here," Bill's younger brother said quietly, trying to change the subject. "You've dribbled something down your shirt." He offered a napkin.
   "Aw, I don't care none 'bout that!" Bill pouted. "We was talkin' about them damn Jews!"

Note that I have been terribly politically incorrect here. I am no anti-Semite; far from it, in fact, but if you want to hold a reader's attention, you have to figuratively grab them by the throat and shake them. If I were to finish this tale (and you never know, I might some day) I would, of course, portray Bill as the unlearned, uncultured animal that he so clearly is. My point is that in the second example I said exactly the same thing that was said in the first, except that it was done in a far more powerful and engaging manner. A better story-opening manner, in other words.

Here are some other story-opening lines that, in my opinion, could be spun into good tales.

  Jeremy had a horrible hangover, but then again he usually did feel pretty bad the day after he had nuked a city and killed its people.    "Oh, what a wonderful dress!" Marie exclaimed. "It's so frilly and soft! Let's steal it, shall we?"   The alien was big-eyed and fuzzy; cute as a button, but he sizzled and burned just like all the rest when I pulled the trigger.

I've kind of set a pattern in these examples by incorporating some sort of 'taboo' concept into each proposed opener and then playing upon it shamelessly. This is frankly the underlying pattern of my work in general, so it should not come as any surprise here, but a skillful author can make use of other equally appealing techniques as well. For example, here are two classic story openers that are wonderful and timeless plays on words.

  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.   In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

While some of you might not consider the latter to be literature, put aside your prejudices and take a look at the sheer power and majesty wrapped up in these words. It's one of the greatest narrative hooks of all time. After all, there are few authors who have been read more than the man who put those particular words to paper. He must have been doing something right, eh?

At any rate, I firmly believe that the success or failure of a written work can be, and often is, defined by the very first handful of words. If you agree with me, then I invite to emulate Mr. Harrison and dream up a few good opening bits when you have the opportunity. Who knows? Maybe someday you'll be as successful a writer as this useful technique has made him.

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