Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Don't Come Too Early or Stay Too Late

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

One of the writing challenges I continue to face is to come up with that great opening line. So often, it’s waiting for me three or four paragraphs into the chapter. That’s the type of thing I look for when I edit my first draft. Equally important though are chapter endings.

In one of my favorite “how-to” books, THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING, by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron and the editors of Writer’s Digest, author James Patrick Kelly describes opening lines and chapter ends like this:

“If you’re the first at the party, there’s usually nothing to do until the other guests arrive except to stand around and admire the furniture. Writers who start their stories too early … waste time describing the china on the breakfast table or the daisies nodding in the garden. Similarly, when the story is over, stop writing.”
So the question is, where should the action begin? When the character is walking down the sidewalk, opening the door to a shop, or once he’s in? Is it better to write the scenes chronologically or start in the middle of the action? Here’s an opening line to consider.
In CITY OF GLASS (1985) Paul Auster wrote:

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”
What intrigues me about this opening line is that we’re brought into the book in the middle of the action. When we turn to the first page in chapter one, the telephone has already rung three times and yet the caller continues to insist on speaking with someone other than the person who answered the phone.

A million questions rushed through my mind as I read that sentence. Who is the caller? What's the urgency? Does the caller really have the wrong number or is there something wrong with the person answering the phone? I would certainly want to read on to find out.

I rewrote the opening paragraph in each of my books, including my current work in progress, at least two to three times before finding the right beginning. In fact, it wasn’t until I wrote the third to the last chapter in my WIP that I realized I needed to change the opening paragraph all together. Sometimes I know from the very beginning—sometimes, the story takes me there.

The same is true for chapter endings. The page turner happens when the reader is left with a surprise development, an intriguing statement, or a character reveals a questionable or unresolved issue. Too often, writers (I'm guilty too) have the tendency pass up a strong ending by adding dialogue, beats or narrative that are nothing more than exposition--fillers and extra words that do nothing more than add to the word count.

It wasn't until I began editing THE DEVIL CAN WAIT, that I realized how many times I used Sam Harper’s ringing cell phone to signal the end of a chapter or chapter scene. I used the “Find” feature in MS Word to search the manuscript for those instances and replaced nearly all but a few that I felt moved the plot forward.

One example is in a scene after Sam Harper has interrogated a teenage boy in the presence of the boy’s parents and has acquired a search warrant for their home and cars. The teen has been in and out of trouble with the law before and it’s clear to Harper that the mother is intimidated by both the boy and her husband. Here, Harper is speaking to her privately (not in the presence of either her husband or son). The original chapter ending read as follows:

“Can you swear that Vinny was home in bed in the early hours of November 15?” Harper asked.

“I can’t swear to anything any more.”

Harper’s cell rang at that moment. It was Detective Rogers calling him from the Wood’s driveway.

“Harper, I found something.”

I deleted the last two sentences and changed it to read:

“Can you swear that Vinny was home in bed in the early hours of November 15?” Harper asked.

“I can’t swear to anything any more.”
I felt that ending this section with her words had more impact than listing to Harper’s conversation on the phone. Changing the ending also made the opening paragraph of the following chapter section stronger too. It’s not always necessary to have a transition from one scene to the next. In this case, the next section opens with the three detectives looking into the teen’s car trunk and finding the evidence they’ve been looking for.

Writing is a process and every writer needs to determine what works best for him or her. My preference is to start in the middle of a crisis and ending with something to think about.

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About the author:
Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. Her books are available online at familiar shops such as all the Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powells. Other locations include, but are not limited to those listed on her website.THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (2008)
Bronze Medal Finalist, 2009 IPPY AwardsTop Ten, 2008 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)

SILENCED CRY (2007) Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book FestivalTop Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)

Visit Sam Harper at


Sheila Deeth said...

Interesting. I'm going to start going through my old manuscripts with this in mind.

Every Day Bloggers said...

"The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old," is the opening to Anna Quinden's novel BLACK AND BLUE. I remember that opening blew me away. It was so disturbing, yet telling.

I think Stephen King is the king of openings. I tried studying all of his in hopes that his skill would rub off on me.

I love the openings in your books, Marta. It shows your strong desire to perfect that first encounter with your reader. I think you do that very well. But, I also think what sets you apart from many writers is you fulfill your promise. It's not enough to grab your readers from the opening, a good writer promises an adventure and carries through that promise.

Kim Smith said...

SO true! I am the queen of authorial throat-clearing. I always start my story about half-way down the page and I now realize that. Sure helps to know it so you can know where the REAL beginning is!

Marta Stephens said...

Hi ladies!!

Joylene, you've really touched me. Thank you so much!

Kim and I are doing a shoulder to shoulder thing--both on our first drafts and oh the conversations we've had these past few months. But you know, it's okay to be wordy in your first draft. That's when you want to put every thought you have down. The important thing, which I know you do, Kim, is edit the heck out of your writing for a polished finish. :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I grabbed a few novels and checked out the opening lines. I found it a little disappointing to see that only a couple had lines that grabbed you. This could explain my failing interest in the books.

The one I'm currently reading is by one of my favorite authors. It just doesn't grab me like his other work has done in the past. I've noticed that by becoming more involved in my writing, my reading interest have fallen short.

Guess it's time to find new favorites.

Marta Stephens said...

Hi Cher, I think that happens to all of us. I think the more we grow as writers, the greater our expectations are of others.

s.w. vaughn said...

Ah, too true, those all important opening lines. And closing lines. I do think your stories open well, Marta!

I actually wrote an entire book based on the very last sentence. And it only took me ten years to get the rest of the book right. :-)

Terry W. Ervin II said...


Some excellent examples to illustrate your point.

Looking over some of my favorite authors, and those which I have faded away from, those that remained strong from beginning of their career and still going (or until the end) remain to have good starting paragraphs, if not lines.

I think some of it comes with established authors, and those readers who are fans (or enjoy them enough to pick up their next book) don't feel the need to have to 'wow' from the first sentence, as they're a known quantity, and the reader is confident that the author will deliver the goods.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Marta, this is a super piece. You're so right - it's really hard on the first draft to even think of these things. And it can take a great deal of playing around with the story to choose that perfect opener and perfect ending. You are the master at this! Thanks for reminding us to pay attention!