Alternative openings to “Ready-Made Grave”

angel-court_horizontalAt our most recent Ekphrasis meeting, Richard shared what he has been learning from a book called Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go.

The main premise was to write an opening sentence that introduces the story-worthy problem that the book will deal with, to create tension already in those first few words, and to set up the ideas that will be important throughout the book. So then we read part of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress Ready-Made Grave. And here’s what I had for the first paragraph:

It was a bright and shiny day. There was a soft crunch: a bird’s nest fell on the gravel inside the tall gates. Vera cocked her head, sending her hair in a waterfall over one shoulder. Shadows curled and crooked all over her poised figure. The shade of one spike touched the naked hatchlings, whose beaks hinged wide, panting. Vera gazed at the chicks, then turned away. Her silver dress was still; a violin at her feet was quiet in its case. She turned her cool glance down the street.

So, I still like that opening, because it sets up most of the important themes of the novel. And the first sentence is, as maybe you gathered, a joke: the opposite of the infamous It was a dark and stormy night. But not everybody present at the meeting got the joke, which meant that to them, that first sentence was really lame. I’m not willing to take the risk that upwards of 50% of potential readers will find my first sentence boring. Therefore, I am toying with new first sentence options, and I would like your opinion on them. Each of them would, of course, lead to a new whole first paragraph. I’ve got a few priorities with this first sentence. I want to:
woodlawnwinter_36– set the stage, physically (outside the tall gates of a cemetery) and emotionally (there’s a stark contrast between the beautiful day and gorgeous setting
vs. the dark turmoil of the characters’ psyches and the fact that the beautiful place is FULL OF DEAD BODIES).
– The opening is supposed to be a genre cue hinting: Murder Mystery!
– focus on place, not people. So I don’t really like the options that name or even mention Vera too early, because (1) she’s not the main character and (
2) it’s really not about people yet; it’s about place and (3) the cemetery is the main character.

Here, then, are the options. Please leave a comment telling me which ones, or which parts of which ones, you like best!

  1. The tall gates were the only way in, and the only way out.
  1. The cemetery’s tall gates were the only way in and the only way out.
  1. On top of the tall gates, an angel thrust his first into the air, nearly overbalancing.
  1. A stone angel poised on top of the tall gates, his fist thrust into the air, his massive bulk teetering over the quiet girl who stood in his shadow below.
  1. Into the glorious summer sun, there fell a soft crunch: a bird’s nest had fallen on the gravel inside the tall gates.
  1. The naked baby birds lay dying in the sunlight.
  1. The naked baby birds lay dying. Sun and shade clashed together over their nest, their grave.
  1. A quiet girl stood in the shadow of the tall gates, watching a nest of baby birds dying in the sunlight.
  1. As Vera stood motionless in the shadow of the tall gates, there was a soft crunch: a bird’s nest fell on the gravel beside her.
  1. As Vera stood motionless in the morning sunlight, there was a soft crunch: a bird’s nest had fallen from the first of the stone angel far above, teetering on top of the tall gates.
Advertisements

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."

16 thoughts on “Alternative openings to “Ready-Made Grave”

  1. Verna Fisher says:

    All of the options are very good, Sorina, but I would choose number 10. That one seems to incorporate your goals in a clear, concise sentence. For me, #10 also set the mood more so than the other sentences.
    –Verna

  2. dchristison says:

    No 6 is my favorite
    It really draws me in

  3. dchristison says:

    I thought 6 was the best
    Really draws me in

    Dominic

  4. pennkenobi says:

    10 then 6, meaning put 6 after 10. But the nest can’t still be teetering after it has fallen.

    • pennkenobi says:

      Oh yes and this, I had no sense of “where” or “what” in the original. It definitely needed to be reworked. For instance, “her silver dress was still.” That statement only really has meaning once the reader has a established awareness of a place where the dress can be blown. And I didn’t know she was standing until it was vaguely suggested by the final sentence. The “where” or sense of place gives context, meaning to the action.

  5. Here’s my new opening. Suggestions still welcome!

    The tall gates were the only way in, the only way out. A quiet girl stood in their shadow, watching a nest of baby birds dying in the sunlight. At the soft crunch of the falling nest, she had tilted her head, sending her hair in a waterfall over one shoulder. Now she did not move as traffic roared by outside the cemetery, as wrought-iron shadows curled and crooked all over her poised figure. The shade of one spike touched the hatchlings, whose beaks hinged wide, panting. Vera gazed at the chicks, then turned away. An angel, poised on the wall above her, thrust his stone first into the air, nearly overbalancing. But she stood still in her silver dress; a violin at her feet was quiet in its case. The naked baby birds lay dying. Sun and shade clashed together over their nest, their grave. She turned her cool glance down the street.

    • pennkenobi says:

      This solves the ‘place’ problem but it does so by sacrificing the smooth rhythm and (somehow) more natural (and beautiful) flow of the original. Suddenly, I have a sense of the difficulty of good writing. I myself have taken a few concerted stabs at it along the way. I started with poetry and then moved to short stories. And it was dreadfully problematic at first. That was before I discovered hard-boiled fiction. I read all of Chandler, and selections of the rest, Hammett, Cain, the MacDonalds (Ross and John), Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, and a great deal more besides just straight hardboiled/noir. And it had a tremendously helpful effect on my writing, particularly in the area of making good solid sentences and paragraphs (not always reflected by my haphazardly written blog responses). But once I began to take on the more macro difficulties of prose fiction in attempting to write a novel, I decided I just didn’t feel like doing the work.

      Incidentally, I just discovered the other Charles Williams, 50s crime noir prodigy. Masterful prose. On par with the best in the craft.
      I mentioned John MacDonald earlier. He’s so good at times as to induce me nearly to swooning.

      I guess indirectly I’m trying to suggest, cancel your appointments, read about 30 of these sorts of novels and then come back to your craft, even though noir is not what you are wanting to write. And don’t read or write any poetry for a season.

      Anyway, there are difficulties with your fiction writing, and I don’t think it is just me. Conflicting imagery, awkward choices of words. But you have good eye for what is worth writing about, the elements are sound, and you have a flair for poetic originality, striking at times!

      Ultimately, I do prefer your new opening.

  6. pennkenobi says:

    Sorina Higgins said: “Who are you?” — If you mean “Who are you to be so presumptuous?” Point taken and pardon the impertinence. If you mean “Where are from, who’s your daddy?” I’m John, 46, from Louisiana, with a sudden wealth of extra time on my hands due to the slump in the oil field, plus underachieving scholar should-have-been who is raiding some don’s wardrobe and posing about the quad in his academic garb. I admit I can get sloshy with the inkwell. I’ll simmer down. For some reason I just realized I haven’t put Karen Blixen in my goodreads, the one Hemingway said should have gotten the prize in 54 instead of him. The first chapter of Out of Africa made me literally physically high. Now there’s a writer you should look at, if you haven’t already.

    • pennkenobi says:

      In fact, come to think of it, the question “Who are you?” is the opening sentence in one of Karen Blixen’s stories, “The Cardinal’s First Tale.” It is also the question the Arab man yelled out twice to T.E. Lawrence from across the Suez: “Who arrrre you? Who arrrre you?” The Cardinal answered; “Who am I? Verily, Madame, you are the first of my penitents who has ever asked me that question—the first, indeed, who has ever seemed to presume that I might have an identity of my own to confess to. I was not prepared for your question?” As for Lawrence, he just stared across the Suez in silence. He was midway between two identities.

  7. I meant literally, “Are you someone I know? Have I met you? Are you a member of my writers’ group masquerading under an internet name?” I was curious about your offline identity. So you’ve now answered that! Thanks so much. I appreciate your suggestions.

  8. How about this? Better?

    The cemetery’s only gates swung open—at least for now. A girl stood outside, in the shadow of the towering walls, gazing in at the green lawns and cool marble monuments. A violin at her feet was quiet in its case. Directly above her, a massive angel thrust its fist into the air. She stirred and looked up at its looming bulk, its weight of stone and age leaning toward the edge. Suddenly, a swish, and a soft crunch. The girl tilted her head, sending her hair in a waterfall over one shoulder. A nest had fallen from the wall. She stared at it, as traffic roared by outside the cemetery, as wrought-iron shadows curled and crooked all over her poised figure. The shade of one spike touched the hatchlings, whose beaks hinged wide, panting. Vera gazed at the chicks, then turned away. The naked baby birds lay dying; she turned her cool glance down the street.

    • pennkenobi says:

      I’m sorry I hadn’t noticed this post!

      I like this paragraph best of all, but with the following suggestions.
      The word “outside” is probably not necessary. Maybe: “A girl stood _________ly in the shadow of its towering walls, gazing…”

      Maybe use “lay” in place of “was” for the violin, unless that would create a ‘tense’ issue.

      See, in poetry ‘age’ can lean but does it work here? Maybe so.

      Maybe: “Directly above her, a massive angel thrust its fist into the air, looking as though it could topple with the slightest seismic jolt.” Not that that would work, but I get the sense that you want to give that impression. If so I think it is a great impression. It sets up a subtle strain of tension and impending doom right off the bat. And the way you’ve written it seems fine enough, even with the ‘age’ leaning.

      Maybe: “The girl titled her head to look, sending her dark hair…” It may not seem like ‘to look’ and ‘dark’ (or whatever color) are necessary here but I think they are.

      Maybe: “A bird’s nest had fallen from the wall.” Yes, definitely include “bird’s” here. Not just for information but for poetic flavoring. And “A bird’s nest” adds a beat in the rhythm that balances the alliterative weight of “fallen from the wall.”

      The following original is a bit difficult. “She stared at it, as traffic roared by outside the cemetery, as wrought-iron shadows curled and crooked all over her poised figure.” Can there be such a thing as ‘wrought-iron” shadows? Maybe in the opening sentence put “wrought-iron gates.” And rework that it is the only entrance somehow, a fact which I am guessing is meaningful.

      As for “the shade of one spike”, it seems a tad abruptly introduced. This sentence might need a previously established fact of there being a wrought-iron gate. Or did you mean that it was the walls that were the wrought-iron. An any case towards the beginning you need to indicate what the walls are made of: “the shadow of the towering red-brick walls” or whatever material.

      Maybe:
      “A bird’s nest had fallen from the wall. She stared at the nest, as traffic roared by outside the gates of the cemetery, their wrought-iron shadows curling and crooking all over her poised figure.”

      See like that, the next sentence can remain as is. It has the support it needs.

      What you have written sets up three important things: impending doom, pathos (the hatchlings), and implied character, cavalier, uncaring, self-absorbed.

  9. Thanks! I’ll consider these suggestions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s