The Challenge of Sensational Story Openings

Renjo La Pass to Mount Everest, Nepal

Photo credit: Petr Meissner on VisualHunt / CC BY

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.


First Page

“When the helicopter comes, we will carry you. You will want to help, but you should do nothing. You must not try to move yourself. We will do everything.”

It was Angel Lady again, her face a few inches from mine. I stared into her strange eyes—big, shiny and metallic blue. In each eye I saw my mirrored reflection. There was two of me. Both of me have a white beanie on. Both of me have an oxygen mask on my face. She began to stroke my forehead, slowly, back and forth, back and forth. Her finger was soft and fuzzy.

“Just relax, think calm thoughts. Think of a place that is warm and peaceful, where you are calm and happy. Relax.” Her voice was soothing but sounded a bit different. Angel Lady was German maybe, or Swiss?

Why am I lying on the ground? Where am I?

“Are you feeling any pain?” she asked. I moved my head slightly, enough to answer “no.”

“Are you warm enough?” I nodded my head “yes.” The slight effort it took to answer was tiring. Trying to think was tiring. The physically conditioned body I had trained so hard for was now motionless—my limp arms and legs too weak to move. My sleeping bag, bundled around me, felt soft and warm. I just wanted to drift into sleep and closed my eyes.

No, NO! Open your eyes, open your eyes—you can’t go to sleep, you have to keep your eyes open or you’ll go to the black place where you can’t breathe! Matt said you have to breathe—he’ll start yelling at you again if you don’t breathe.

I jolted awake, more conscious than I had been for, well, I had no idea how long. I looked at rocky ground all around me. I saw snow-covered giant mountains in the distance.

I know where I am. Renjo La . . . Himalaya mountains.

I remember what happened.

I began to shake, hit by that rare kind of terror that comes with realizing you are probably going to die.


First-Page Critique

The effectiveness of an opening comes down to questions. The questions are always the same: who, what, when, where, how, and why? What varies is which questions are raised and answered and to what extent. Answer too many questions, and you burden readers with irrelevant information and risk undermining suspense; answer too few, and you create false suspense; confusion.

Even when an opening achieves a good balance between questions raised and answers given, those questions and answers may not be the best ones with which to equip readers for the journey through a story or a novel—or, in this case, a memoir.

The answers provided by the sensational opening of this memoir are as follows:

  • Where: Renjo La Pass in the Everest region of the Himalayas
  • When: Contemporary, certainly within the last half-century
  • What: An expedition, probably for the purpose of mountain climbing, during which the narrator has been incapacitated and is delirious
  • How: Probably she took a bad fall and broke one or more limbs, or succumbed to altitude sickness, or both

As for questions, the main one it raises is: Will the helicopter arrive? Will the narrator be rescued? The question calls attention mainly to an anecdotal experience. Anecdote: “a short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.” While mountain climbing in the Himalayas, I succumbed to altitude sickness, broke my leg, and had to be airlifted to a hospital. That’s terrific fodder for a tale told to friends over cocktails. But is it enough to draw me into a book-length memoir? Assuming it draws me in, does it point the way to the memoir’s main theme? (The subtitle of this memoir, “A Woman’s Journey to Save Her Wild Child,” leaves me with some doubt.)

But putting that aside, let’s consider two questions not raised by this first page, namely Who? and Why? Who is this narrator? What circumstances and motives brought her to this treacherous mountain pass? If readers wonder at all, they will do so vaguely, their curiosity about such things overshadowed by the sensational drama at hand. Which points to a potential problem with sensationally dramatic openings: they leave very little room for character evocation. Apart from the fact that she’s incapacitated, the one thing we learn about the narrator from this first page is that she’s afraid to die, but then aren’t most of us? Under the same circumstances, who wouldn’t respond more or less as she does? Toward revealing character, the opening doesn’t take us very far.

But supposing, for argument’s sake, that this first page told us something more about the narrator, something to make us as curious about who she is as to whether or not she’ll be rescued? Supposing there were some hint of a tragedy in her recent past, something left behind on this expedition? Supposing we learned that she is eighty-six years old, or that she’s been through a bad break-up, or quit her job as a lawyer for a corrupt pharmaceutical company, or done several tours as a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq, or survived the collapse of one of the towers at the World Trade Center? Or that before undertaking this voyage she spent the entirety of her life in a small midwestern town. If only we knew any one such thing, how differently this first page would read.

In Black Wave, a memoir about a family sailing trip turned disastrous by a freak storm, within two paragraphs authors Jean and John Silverman do more than just put us into a disastrous situation; they engage character:

Below deck in our catamaran sailboat, my husband, John, stood in the doorway of our tiny stateroom. I can picture him there in that instant before everything changed. Our four children—we had pried them away from their suburban world for a thousand reasons—were busy elsewhere on the boat, settling in for the night. John had just told me how long it would probably take us to get to Fiji, our next destination by way of Tonga. After Fiji and Australia, the plan was for the kids and me to head home to the States while John stayed behind long enough to clean up the Emerald Jane and sell her.

I was propped up in bed with a laptop as John chatted from the doorway. He hadn’t had a drink since his big meltdown in the Caribbean, and I was pretty much in love with him again. We had done what we set out to do two years earlier when we first set sail. Along the way, our children’s eyes had opened to the beauty of the world. The kids were very strong characters now, very different from when we began. We loved them in new ways—maybe deeper ways, because we had taken the time to finally get to know them.

Like the one under discussion, this memoir opens in medias res, “in the middle of things.” It, too, is about an adventure that turns disastrous. But though the opening telegraphs that disastrous event (“before everything went wrong”), the emphasis is on who rather than on what. In two paragraphs we learn:

  • that the narrator and husband’s marriage has been troubled;
  • that the husband, John, may be an alcoholic;
  • that there has been at least one recent “meltdown”;
  • that the children are growing, changing, forming “strong characters.”

Most telling is that last sentence: “We loved them in new ways—maybe deeper—because we had taken the time to finally get to know them.” Though about the children, from that sentence we infer that something of the kind applies to the narrator and her husband as well, that in confronting disaster they’ll learn things about themselves and each other. Understanding, revelation, and growth: that’s what most good memoirs are, ultimately, about. Not anecdote; awakening.

Your First Page SelginAn anecdotal experience can play a crucial or central role in a memoir and even serve as its main action. But however sensational, unless we know the people to whom they happen, dramatic incidents in and of themselves are fairly meaningless. Ideally, the opening of a memoir should make us as curious about the characters as about what has happened, or will happen, to them. If the author can add that dimension to this opening, it will be very strong indeed. As it stands, it is merely sensational.


Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

Posted in First Page Critiques, Guest Post.

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer's Digest, Serving House Books, Broadview Press), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.

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Kathy Steinemann

Your First Page isn’t available in digital format? [She sighs.] And the paperback version is labelled “Usually ships within 1 to 2 months.” [She sighs again.]

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

Hi Kathy, you can order and have shipped within 10 or so days from Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/your-first-page-peter-selgin/1131182830

Lisa Tener

This is such great advice and I love the examples. Timely, too. I just received a first chapter from a colleague and immediately sent her to see this post so she can make her opening pop!

Maggie Smith

I’ve missed this feature on Jane’s blog and am glad to see it back. Your critique has opened my eyes to the fact that sensational isn’t enough and I love the second excerpt. But isn’t it a bit cheating to say “before everything went wrong.” I’ve always had a bit of trouble with the forecasting ahead technique

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

It’s not cheating if you can get away with it! Seriously, the reason I don’t object is that there’s nothing artificial about the narrator saying at that moment, “Before everything went wrong,” especially given that the boat they were on was, in fact, quite literally, about to wrecked by a storm. That’s very different than, say, artificially withholding information or some other contrivance. One acid test I use: would the words be natural used by someone telling this story in person? In this case, absolutely.

AvArsic
AvArsic

I liked it. Thought it was well done. I liked wondering “why is she afraid to die?” It lent the sense of mystery.

Jody Hadlock

So glad you’re back on Jane’s site with your critiques! As always, this one is spot on. When I read this first page, I didn’t feel grounded. I was confused through the entire page. IMHO, I wouldn’t start with dialogue, or at least not those particular lines. Has potential though. First pages are HARD!

Dan
Dan

It doesn’t read ‘before everything went wrong.’ It reads ‘before everything changed.’ Wrong implies a disaster while change is simply that: some alternate reality taking place. Well, yeah. Things do change. Thanks for telling us. I’d also challenge the fact that the narrator can get inside the kids’ heads to the point of knowing what they are thinking. And ‘we love them in new ways’? What. She’s got a split personality? The husband drinks. He is unreliable. How on earth can she presume to know what he is thinking? And enough with the ‘very.’ Come on. This is so weak.… Read more »

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

You’re right, Dan; I misquoted, though I’m not sure the difference is as great as you say, since either way if telegraphs a life-changing event. As for the impossibility of the narrator being privy to what her kids think, a mother not only can but usually does know such things about her children. The example I chose is no literary masterpiece, but it works on the score under discussion (apparently their editor and Random House agreed). My simple point is that for this memoir to work—for any memoir to work well—the character element has to be given as much priority… Read more »

jon
jon

I prefer the first example; it uses a dramatic technique (aka “hook”) that gets the reader into the action early. There’s plenty of time for backstory digression in page two and following. If readers’ attention span is so short that boredom or disinterest sets in before the end of this first page, they’d probably prefer something less intellectually challenging anyway.

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

I don’t think it’s an either-or situation, Jon, and I certainly didn’t mean to suggest the second example as an “alternative” to the first. Only that it’s much easier to care about characters if we have some idea who they are; in fact I don’t see how we can care about them at all otherwise. In the first page under examination, we know absolutely nothing about the protagonist (we wouldn’t even know she’s a woman were this not a memoir and were the author’s name not known to me) other than that she’s in dire straights. It doesn’t take that… Read more »

jon
jon

My point was that there is plenty of time in the second example on the second and following pages to “care about the character”. I see less to “care” about in the second example than the first. The first example gets the reader into the action – a dire situation that compels empathy. The second example describes the author’s perspective. There’s that somewhat hackneyed aphorism “show, don’t tell”. The first example shows, the second tells. We may or may not agree with the second author’s perspective. There’s no doubt about the first.

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

How about I meet you two-thirds of the way, Jon, and agree that the first page under discussion is indeed the more intrinsically compelling and dramatic, and would be even more so were we given the vaguest hint of who this person in peril is, so we could form an impression of a specific human being, rather than a cipher, and do so while the scene is playing, rather than retrospectively, when we get to Page 2? Then we’d both get what we want out of this first page.

Neil S Plakcy

Because this is a first-person narration, I don’t feel any tension about whether the narrator will survive or not. Obviously she must, or she couldn’t be telling the story. I agree that I’d rather learn more about her and how she got there than simply this fear of dying.

Anne Green

Great to see Peter Selgin back with first page critiques – so spot on! I’d be interested to know whether the points raised here apply equally to fiction as to memoir – I suspect in terms of the significance of immediate focus on character, they do, perhaps even more so. And as this is memoir, is “action” per se anywhere near as important as exploration of character – I wouldn’t have thought so. I tend to think, even with fiction, “hooks” are overrated. I read a lot of fiction and the books that engage me present a character straight away,… Read more »

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

Thanks, Anne. The word “hook” makes me deeply suspicious, as do all clichés relative to the craft of writing. “Find your voice” is another. And yes, I do think getting character on the page is as or more important for fiction. Anything we do as storytellers of any kind that gets character onto the page is usually to the good. The obverse is just as true, I think.

Anil Menon

Glad to see the First Page critiques have returned. However, I must admit I’ve become skeptical about this kind of psychological analysis. We know from social psychology experiments that it is very easy to drum up spurious reasons for our intuitive evaluations. We read a piece of text, feel it works or doesn’t work, and when we prod our minds for explanations, the Brain obliges us in spades. But these explanations are effects, not causes; that is, they’re usually rationalisations, not reasons, for our intuitive judgments. When I read an explanation that a first page doesn’t work because, say, the… Read more »

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

Anil, your comment is most interesting and appreciated, but it’s built on the premise that the purpose of these critiques is to judge, when as I see it the point is to stimulate thought—and not so much about a particular work, but to extrapolate more general ideas and possible answers to the question, “Just what makes readers bond with a piece of writing so that they want to read on? What’s going on in those first 300 or so words?” Through looking at these first pages, questioning, probing, analyzing, using them as fodder for discussion and even argument, we all… Read more »

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

I should add that while rules (“best practices”) are, as they say, made to be broken, the key to breaking them successfully is, I think, to understand them well if not perfectly. Only then is one in a position to break them HARD.