If Walls Could Talk: The Value of First Impressions

M.H. Norris

There is something to the saying, “you only have one chance to make a first impression.” When you’re writing a novel, you have to make sure that opening page, the opening chapter, stand out and make your reader want to come back and read more.

Openings can be tricky, there are many ways to start a story. Some people launch right into the plot, still others set up the premise, still others use the opening pages to introduce a character. One method is not better than another, it’s up to you as the writer to decide which option is best for your particular story.

Opening the Curtain for your Readers

Let’s look at some examples. First, the opening to Badge City: Notches:

Curled up under a tree in the middle of Coal Hill Park, the girl lay in such a way that Detective Deidre Tordano could almost imagine that she was sleeping and dreaming of princess and ponies, sunshine and rainbows.

The camera flash could be mistaken for a parent taking a picture of her sleeping child, wanting to hold that memory for years to come.

The leaves crunched under Deidre’s feet as she got out of her car.

“Got the call an hour ago, jogger found her on the trail. She was left with her backpack that had an ID in it. Grace Miller.” Officer Hamilton walked up to her, clipboard in hand.

“How old.”

“Ten.”

A gust of wind blew past them and Deidre pulled her trench coat closer. “Coroner’s here?”

“Just arrived a few minutes ago. CSU is almost done with the scene.”

There are two things out of Badge City: Notches that I’m especially proud of are the climax and the imagery of the opening two paragraphs. Here I am, embarking on my first murder mystery and I open with that scene.

What do I establish in this opening?

  • The Protagonist, Detective Deidre Torando.
  • The victim, Grace Miller, and that she is a child.
  • That she was murdered, and it staged so you wouldn’t be able to tell it was a murder scene.
  • That this novel is a police procedural, and implies that it will strive for accuracy.

There’s something about crime fiction that people can’t seem to get enough of. There are spin offs of both “NCIS” and “CSI” (with “NCIS” still beginning its 15th season this week) along with a handful of other shows spread across the networks all dealing with crime and the people who solve them.

With a mystery, hooking them into the idea that it’s there’s a crime to be solved might not be a bad idea.

But, let’s look at another set up, from my upcoming “Midnight”:

Dr. Rosella Tassoni looked over the auditorium full of half-asleep freshman and quickly remembered why she usually only agreed to lecture upper-level courses.

“Since the beginning of time, man has told stories. When a written language came along, these were written down. Some would surpass their own cultures, becoming what we know to be legends. Today we call the study of those legends mythology. Every culture has their own distinct legends, yet many share a similar foundation. Max Müller considered these legends ‘a disease of language,’ but clearly they’re something more. I prefer Tolkien’s explanation for legends in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ originally delivered to students very similar to you.  ‘The history of fairy-stories is probably more complex than the physical history of the human race, and as complex as the history of human language.’”  

Rosella clicked the slide over before reading the quote. “What are the origins of, as Tolkien would call them, ‘fairy-stories’? ‘I am too unlearned to deal with this question in any other way than with a few remarks…It is plain enough that fairy- stories (in wider or in narrower sense) are very ancient indeed. Related things appear in very early records; and they are found universally, wherever there is language. We are therefore obviously confronted with a variant of the problem that the archaeologist encounters, or the comparative philologist: with the debate between independent evolution (or rather invention) of the similar; inheritance from a common ancestry; and diffusion at various times from one or more centres.”

Turning away from the screen she studied the crowd. “Tolkien is considered one of the greatest fantasy writers in the history of mankind. His books are still widely read and have even inspired a popular MMORPG.”

That comment helped her pick out the gamers in the audience by their grins. She could tell a couple of them were thinking about playing that as soon as class was over. In fact, the way one boy’s head shot up, she couldn’t help but wonder if she looked at his screen if she would find Middle-Earth.

“But, more than that, he was one of the great philologists, with an intense knowledge of language’s history—and the mythology that has always clung to it. Gilgamesh, after all, is our earliest surviving written record. Tolkien acknowledged Müller’s quote though and had this to say, ‘Max Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may, like all human things, become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology.’”

That caused her to chuckle. “I prefer to agree with Tolkien on this. After all, that quote is how I earn my living, in a sense.”

As she walked across the stage, clicking through slides, she eyed one of the students. He slipped into the back of the lecture hall, border-lining the time that it was socially acceptable to arrive late. Which was, also, the time it was polite for Rosella to be late. She’d earned her doctorate. At least according to the old myth—Rosella preferred to be on time to speaking events, not in the mood to waste not only her time but the time of those listening. The student quickly opened his laptop and tried to look attentive, but his shoulders were tense yet his face portrayed a different story. His face appeared to be relaxed but his clenched jaw told her he was stressed and a little over focused on the task at hand. Not only that but she could see his wire from here. He must be new, he was too tense. That or he hadn’t been warned that she was pretty good at reading body language. But seriously, Quantico was slipping if they thought that act was covert. She assumed he was wired simply to test him in the field, in a safe situation. Baby’s first op.

“Some stories are to teach a lesson, it’s the reason we have fables and how Aesop became a household name. Others are fun stories to tell around a campfire or a childhood sleepover or to be turned into the next Disney movie.”

“Others take a darker side, or rather people choose to let them.” Another click another slide.

“Serial killers, immortalized in this day and age by the influx of crime dramas which seem to occupy most major networks. People are obsessed with the idea of the forensic sciences.”

Now she had their attention.

“Sometimes, the two meet. Killers think they can hide behind the myths. Forensic Mythology if you will.”

Here, instead of a crime, I set up the concept of not only the story but the series that will follow. I introduce the character before properly introducing the plot. I allow Rosella to tell you what she does and what to expect from her investigations.

What do I establish in this scene?

  • The protagonist, Rosella Tassoni
  • The tone of the series
  • Her approach to her work
  • That while this is not specifically a police procedural, it remains an accurate approach to police procedure
  • Her relationship with college-age people, which will be expanded on later.

Both approaches, for all their seeming differences, draw the reader in and establish your story.

Conclusion: Openings are Important

They’re the first thing your readers see when they open your book. I’ve said it in this column before, but I have put books down because they failed to capture my attention.

Sometimes, when writing, finding the proper place to start is half the battle. Remember the story I wrote about a couple of weeks ago that I’m having problems with? The opening scene has shifted at least a half dozen times. I’ve changed the circumstances, location, characters involved, all to find what fits the story I’m trying to tell best.

Keep in mind, if you go with a plot base opening, you need to be careful that you don’t give too much away. But, you want to give enough to hook your readers in.

It’s a balancing act and you get a sense of where the line between enough and too much is (and this is another instance where a good editor is invaluable).

Whether you’re doing a plot based opening or a character based opening, make sure that these opening pages shine. This is your story you’re telling. It’s something you will spend hours upon hours on and you want to give it its best chance at succeeding.

And a strong opening is the best way to do it.