The other day, I wrote a brief analysis of elements that are often found in a good opening line and conjured a sample opener “The sun set warm over the stench of glory.” Now I think I will try to develop that into an actual opening sequence.
As I explained before, the opening of a book is the hook, the line, and the sinker. “The hook” provides the catch, “the line” provides the tension, and “the sinker” provides the direction. If you want to see a perfect example of the hook, line, and sinker, read the opening passage of Elmore Leonard’s Glitz. (You can read all of the first chapter in the Look Inside feature of Amazon.com.) Pay attention to all the colors, textures, movements, and emotions introduced in the first section. And take special note of the particular sound of the language of the story. This is what we want to create for the opening passage.
“The sun set warm over the stench of glory” is a description of a battle field. I did not try to write about a battle field. It was just the first thing that came to mind when I was staring at a bottle of cologne on my work desk in my little cubicle while I was procrastinating on more important work. How do you get this little hook to lead into a story?
Let’s first imagine what the battle field looks like. It is not a modern battle field with guided missiles and smart bombs falling from unseen drones. It is a battle field where men fought at close range with spears, swords, and matchlocks. Bloodied armor is discarded among with dismembered limbs in the moist tall grass. Crows are picking on corpses and stray dogs are gnawing on dead horses. Scavengers are hunting among the dead soldiers for usable weapons and purses with gold, while noble soldiers are looking for enemy officers among the corpses so that they may cut off the heads and bring them home as trophies. It is the aftermath of samurai warfare. How do I tag that information after the opening sentence?
But before I do that, I must decide on the protagonist. You should never introduce the protagonist too late in the novel. In some Agatha Christie books, Hercule Poirot does not make an appearance for the first half of the book. But that is okay because readers already know that there will be a Poirot and know exactly what he is like. In any other kind of book, you need the protagonist to appear on the first page. For this particular story, I think I will choose for the protagonist, Yasuke, the black samurai.
There were not many Africans in Japan in the sixteenth century, and the tall, muscular man with black skin was looked upon almost like a mythical creature. Lord Nobunaga, believing his skin color to be a forgery, ordered to have him washed. Let me see if I can utilize this incongruous skin color to set up the tone of the story.
By the way, tone is very important. Stephen King said that readers do not come to a writer for the action or character or story, but for the voice. In so many cases, voice is a matter of attitude. If you do not know what I mean, take this random quote from Raymond Chandler. “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” That is very different attitude from the kind you need to write a samurai story, but you get the idea. Now let’s decide on the kind of voice you need.
Samurai literature is frequently associated with Zen Buddhism. In reality, Zen became popular with the samurai in the early seventeenth century when most of the fighting was over, and the warriors could reflect on the meaning of their lives having spent a lifetime chopping off limbs with swords. These are the people who resonated with concepts like “All things material are the Void, the Void is the material. All is nothingness.” That is the general tone of the samurai novel, and the Zen nihilism is the general attitude.
So now we have the first sentence, the picture of the stage, the protagonist, and the general tone. But we still do not have the line (tension) and the sinker (direction).
Always open a book with a conflict, they say. Conflict never happens without motive. Someone wants something. The other person, or some phenomenon, gets in the way. So what does the black samurai want when the battle is over and won? Let’s say he wants to find a traitor. His master, Lord Nobunaga is dead. He wants to find the man responsible for his death. (I am actually making this up as I go along.) That would make an interesting “line” but what about the “sinker”? Where would the story be headed?
There is no historic evidence that Yasuke fought in the Battle of Yamazaki, but that would be about the right battle to set this story. To avenge his master, he would be fighting on the side of Hideyoshi, and he would be looking for Akechi Mitsuhide, the traitor. But Mitsuhide would soon be dead, so the story will have to re-direct the black samurai toward another conflict.
Another thing I have to think about is the rhythm. How may words you use in a sentence can change the impression of your words. Moby Dick opens with a three word sentence: “Call me Ishmael” which is immediately followed by a sentence forty words long, then a fifteen-word sentence, then a sentence eighty-seven words long. The construction is almost a daring piece of poetry, where the last sentence of the first paragraph reads:
Since our first sentence already has nine words, I figure the optimum number of words in the next sentence would be two or three. Probably two. So I picture the scene in my mind and try to put two words behind the nine-word opening sentence:
“The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried.”
The two word sentence punctuates like an elongated comma. It gives you time to inhale your breath for the sentence to follow. It emphasizes the hook. Now, it is time to expand on the vision of the battle field and see in front of you the black man in samurai armor entering the scene.
The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried. Then one fluttered off the perch on broken arrows in a fallen warrior as the man, a black man sheathed in lacquer black armor from head to toe, his hands caked with blood to his elbows, waded through the tall grass approaching the samurai on the ground. His eyes had been lost to the crow, but he was still breathing. The licorice black negro grabbed him by the torso plate and lifted him up to his face. Broken arms dangled in odd directions.
“Mitshuhide wa dokoda?” he barked, struggling with the words.
The samurai gurgled curses through bubbles of blood and fell silent, choking.
The man dropped him, disgusted. Where was Mitsuhide? Where had he gone? The battle, for him, was not over until Mitsuhide was dead.
Good enough for a hook? No. Not quite.
The problem is the third sentence. It is the right length but conveys the wrong information. If this was a movie, the scene would be fine. But this is not pictures on the silver screen. These are words on a page, and words have connotations.
Also, the director must direct the audience’s attention on what he wants them to see. We need closeups of specific items. We need words with sounds like noises you associate with the scene.
Let’s try again.
The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried. Blood-caked hands sheathed in lacquer black armor grabbed a fallen warrior by the chest plate, a pin cushion of broken arrows, and lifted him up above the tall razor grass. Broken joints dangled in odd directions and his eyes, lost to crows, were sockets of darkness in the orange light.
“Mitshuhide wa dokoda?” A heavily accented voice barked into the blinded man’s face.
“I know you. You are the black man,” said the eye-less samurai. Then he vomited as he gargled curses through burbles of blood and choked on his own dying breath.
The black man threw the samurai on the mud. He looked over the battle field strewn with corpses and dismembered limbs, the enemy leader nowhere in sight. The battle, for him, was not over until Mitsuhide’s head was in hand.
Well, that is better, but now I have a problem with the point of view. This is the omnipotent point of view and it distances the reader from the feelings of the protagonist. Besides, it is kind of confusing when at one point we hear the black man’s voice in the third person, and then, just a few lines later, we know what he feels.
This is barely good enough to serve as a space holder in the first draft. But in the process of writing, the vision of the scene has become more clear and specific. I see a battle field, quiet after the battle, flooded in orange light, razor grass swaying in the breeze, dead horses and soldiers strewn around, smell of blood and guts, buzzing of flies over dismembered limbs, a frustrated black man in black armor wading through the gore to find anyone who might know where the traitor had gone. What we need now is the “sinker” or the direction.
Here is an example of a “sinker”. It is the second paragraph in the opening of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It has no hook and no line. Just all sinker.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
It gives the reader a taste of what the rest of the book will be like. When you have a book titled “Bleak House” and a chunk of the opening passage talking about nothing but fog, you get the idea that the atmosphere of the story is NOT clear skies ahead. A Victorian reader could evidently take a sinker of this kind and still read on. A lot of modern readers will no doubt take this as a signal to put the book down.
The sinker is the voice. The sinker is the sound. The sinker is the mesmerizing hypnosis that turns you into a crack addict for the next chapter before you know you were smoking anything.
So how do you go about writing the sinker? Dickens’ description of the fog is an extreme example, but the sinker usually has a refrain, in feelings if not always in words. It tends to repeatedly hammer in the concept at the center of the story to come.
The sinker for the samurai story might go like this:
Black smoke rose from the camps as the men of the honjin threw bodies of the dead on a fire. The dusk filled with the foulness of burning flesh, and mouths and nostrils became dusty with bitter soot. Columns of smoke slowly multiplied in the darkening sky, announcing to the world beyond that a fight had been won. And yet the traitor was still at large, a taste in the mouth worse than the soot.
Silhouettes of soldiers stood by the fires, their lances and spetums held erect. Scavengers scurried about, bolder now that darkness was near, looking for purses with gold and weapons to be sold. Foot soldiers and pages parried with them as they tried to retrieve the heirlooms and jeweled armaments, but they also had to carry the bodies for the fires. Noblemen in the camps sorted through the corpses for heads to be severed and taken home as trophies.
Yasuke, the black warrior, paid them no heed, for he had been fed the cold dish of treachery and it sat ill in his stomach.
Not a perfect example, but good enough for an exercise.