You had me at “hello”

Ok, I’ll admit it – I hate that line. Always did. From the minute it popped out of Renée Zellweger’s pie hole, I knew it would be something I’d hear every other day. And I did. Its very cliche-ness sends me into a case of eye-rolls that I fear will require medical attention.

However, the line serves its purpose when illustrating the opening paragaphs of your book.

What’s grab-worthy?

I’m not talking about great first line, though a great first line is oh-so cool. But what I mean here is what do you lead with? You’re all astoundingly bright and know the importance of grabbing readers right away – which is at the first page. At hello <shudder>.

And since you’re all so bright, you know there are infinite ways to begin a book.

I’m not here to suggest there’s a right way because there isn’t. That’s the beauty of writing, right? But I thought I’d share some of the things that make my hand quiver over the reject button.

Action: Many new writers interpret this to mean that they need to start with an action scene. Someone may have told them, “yah, baby, wow ’em with riveting action!” Problem is, that might not be the best place to start the book. I’ve seen these action scenes that felt like a prerequisite rather than something heartfelt and logical. They wrote their action scene, then instantly abandoned it for the scene they really wanted to use.

That is not grab-worthy because I’ll see it for the gimmick that it is.

Setting the scene: Oboy. Personally, I find scene setting to be a hideous bore because it’s so easy to go overboard.  I yawn when the opening paragraphs go on for an entire page – it’s duller than the beagle’s jokes. Why? Because nothing is happening. Setting a scene is static. When you’re working to engage a reader, the last thing to do is open with gauzy curtains, a sunlit room, faint breezes, blah, blah, blah that go on for too long.

That is not grab-worthy.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like to know where the scene is taking place – a shopping mall or Mars? These things are important. But brevity is key here because the story isn’t about the setting.

Here’s what I mean – and let’s assume this short example goes on for a full page.

Example

Early morning sunlight streamed in through dusty mini blinds, creating a lined pattern across a desk laden with stacks of paper, an empty wine glass, an uncapped red pen, and a sleeping beagle. The desk was old, pitted from the ravages of time. Its current station in life paled in comparison to its previous engagement as a prop in porn movies.

Apart from the desk with the lively past, the rest of the office furnishings were a mixed batch of early thrift shop and Ikea. Shades of patrician blue couches co-mingled with institution green file cabinets. The multi-colored rug of indeterminate age and heritage covered carpet stains of past glories, a time when the resident editor had it out with a mob of angry writers who insisted vanity publishing was the wave of the future. They’d tossed wine and good tequila at each other until the authorities arrived.

Flung over the couch was the editor’s favorite blanket, crocheted from dryer lint. The long windows that overlooked the street below were dusty and smudged – a clear indication that the editor allowed few into this inner sanctum. Expense had been spared when designing this hell hole. Even the paint on the walls had been watered down in order to extend its coverage. It was amazing how far one can of Laffy Taffy Pink would go when diluted with gin.

Apart from the dinginess of the room, there was an exquisite statue of a book, dipped in gold, that rested on its own pedestal of stained oak, that had been lovingly sanded down to the smoothness of a baby’s bum. Where dust stood on every available surface, the gold book bore witness to love and attention, for not a single speck of dust touched its brilliant surface. Blah, blah, blah…

See how static it is? I realize the author (me, coff, coff) is panning the room much like the opening scene in a movie. Problem is, what works in movies doesn’t work in print. There’s nothing going on.

Vague settings: Another bugaboo of mine. I’ve read stories where I had no clear idea where (or when) the opening pages were taking place. Are we outside? In a car? A sewer? It’s almost like those dreams you have where everything seems to be covered with gauze and you can almost figure out where you are, but it always eludes you. Dreams are fine because it gives shrinks a reason for living. But it’s irritating in literature. Be clear about where your story opens.

Characters: So you gotta ask yourself, what is the most interesting aspect of your book? CHARACTERS. Why should we care about expansive scene detail when we don’t even know the characters yet? Ease us into your story by letting us know the most important elements – your characters. Admittedly, it’s a balance issue because you want to offer rich detail to your setting, but is there any reason you can’t do that through your character’s eyes?

Your characters are the fuel to your literary furnace, so why not open with them? They are the elements that hook readers and reel them in. Characters are the vehicle in which your book moves along. Without them, you don’t have a story. So you have to ask yourself what makes more sense to your opening pages.

Example:

The editor ran her hands along the pitted surface of her desk. The beagle had insisted she get rid of the thing, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Sure, it was old and the hinges on the drawers were rusty and warped. But she got a cheap thrill out of knowing that its previous engagement was as a prop in 50s porn movies.

Not only do you set the scene, but you keep the focus where it belongs – on the character. The reader is seeing that desk through the character’s eyes. Remember: the setting isn’t a character.

So take special care of how you decide to open your book because it determines whether an editor will feel you had her at hello. If you’re successful, of course, your next words will be, “Show me the money!”

Gah…another cliche…save me.

9 Responses to You had me at “hello”

  1. authorguy says:

    “Tarkas was running for his life. Again.”
    “The game was afoot. The hunter hunted. The prey prayed.”

    I’m a fantasy/paranormal author, sorry. But I agree with you that the first page, the first line, has to grab them somehow. My preferred method in media res, even if the action I’m catching them in the middle of is something small.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    And don’t start with *exposition*. Please.

  3. danholloway says:

    Marvellous. Generic. It can be the most beautiful atmospheric generic in the world but when I’m on my lunch hour wanting a book for the bus home it still gives me absolutely zero reason to stop here rather than go on to the next beautiful atmospheric opening.

    I thik what writers who get defensive about their beautiful openings don’t get is that however snappy and snotty they think an agent/editor is being rejecting a book after a paragraph – a reader in a hurry will be WAY quicker to put it down and move on to the next. After all, it’s an agent’s job, and an agent’s desk is piled high with slush so they really *want* to find something to stand out – they’re going to be generous to move on to sentemce two in the hope. A reader won’t do that – they’re in a bookshop. They’re surrounded by books that are all, in one way or another, really not that bad. The next one they pick up will be at least passable. It’s your job to stop them picking it up. And that means specificity

  4. anne gallagher says:

    So if, “You had me at hello” was for beginnings —

    is, “You complete me” for the ending?

  5. Anne: Gahhhhh, you clever woman. Another horrible cliche that makes my skin crawl. And from the same movie! Now I must go wash my eyes out with Draino.

    Dan: Well put. Readers may be thought to be quite forgiving, but I’ve found them to be even tougher than agents and editors.

    I know I don’t reject anything based on a couple paragraphs. I’ll read at least ten pages before making up my mind.

  6. Pelotard says:

    Um… I’m almost afraid to ask, but is it true about the desk? 🙂

  7. Alas, no. The desk is a product of my overstimulated imagination.

  8. tammyparks says:

    Yikes! You now have me nervously biting my nails. I open with action (nothing crazy, but action just the same)in my prologue, AND begin my first chapter with the location shrouded in mystery…on purpose. It sure seemed like a good idea, but now (spitting bits of nail), I’m not so sure.

  9. Tammy, there are no absolutes in writing, so please don’t bite your nails. The trick to this is being confident in what you’re doing – and you gain that confidence through experience.

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