Thursday, April 08, 2010

Flash-Bang Openings and Others

There's a particular kind of opening -- I think of this as a 'flash-bang' opening.

Chapter One, (or, more often, the Prologue,) is full of Big Exciting WhizzBang Action Stuff . . .

and then the Big Exciting Action is dropped like something that was left too long in the back of the refrigerator . . .

and then you pick up in the next chapter with somebody leaning over a microscope or teaching class at the University.

This is a flash bang opening, here.

In this sort of opening, the author gives us a gunfight or the charge of Fire Demons or the little spaceship trying to outrun the big one, and then he abruptly pulls us outta there

so we can settle down to meet the Major Character and get introduced to the scenery and the backstory and be told what is really going on, which is generally less interesting than Fire Demons,

This is kinda TV-and-Movie plotting, which works well in TV-and-Movies with the visual medium and tight time constraints.

In books, this flash-bang start tends to live in the thriller/adventure/suspense field. In these genres, the 'flash' opening serves the useful function of promising more flash and whizzbang to follow,
a la James Bond,
and the promise is generally delivered, which is a note of bright hopefulness in a cynical and disappointing world, is it not?

Anyhow, a while back I was thinking about how such 'flash openings' could be handled.
I concluded -- a while back, as I say -- that  I'm not going to do a big flash-bang opening in JUSTINE, which will be a relief to everyone, I imagine.

I will attempt Exciting Action to start JUSTINE,
But I'm going to open with my POV character and continue with her till the 'Immediate Opening Problem That Is Resonant With The Main Story Problem' is established, at which point I will change to the hero's POV.
Which is what I do.

So -- No whizzbang opening for JUSTINE.

But that set me thinking about such openings.

One thought that came to me --

All whizzbang action is not equal. What's important about the whizzbang is  how it will be used in the plot structure.
Does the flashy opening scene (a) set up an intellectual problem or (b) build an emotional cliffhanger?

(If you are wondering why I have this picture of an Eighteenth Century room in the middle of the blog, it's because Justine lived in this sort of surroundings till she was about nine.)

Sometimes the Exciting Opening sets the reader an interesting puzzle to unravel over the rest of the book. Intrigue is what you're aiming at.

The pirate ship went down in 1678 -- we've just seen the stormy, rocking  death of the ship -- and now we slip over to treasure hunters in a library in Madrid.
The farmer sees a mysterious green light above him and runs screaming down the field and falls, frothing at the mouth. Next scene he's on a slab at the morgue, glowing faintly green, and the forensic pathologist is leaning over him.

These are 'puzzle plots'. The flash at the beginning gives way to a fairly cool and intellectual story.
In this puzzle plot opening, little transition is needed between the 'action prologue' and the rest of the story.  The action opening is isolated, neatly rounded out, and emotionally complete. At the end of the 'flash' presentation, we are left with only the mystery, the puzzle, the hunt for an answer.

Often the 'flash' is there to let the reader feel that the puzzle is important.

There's a whole 'nother kind of 'flash opening'.
In this one, when we get pulled out of that opening action scene, the plane is about to crash or the young woman is trying to outrun her pursuers in the deserted underground garage or our poor CSI is waking up in a glass coffin buried several feet underground and his air is running out.


These are not puzzle plots. What we have here is an emotional cliffhanger.

Different purpose to these openings.  Different handling.  And I think this emotional cliffhanger sort of flash opening is just plain harder to work with and has to be approached with some care.  The pacing on these is going to be a reaal killer.

If I were planning to do an Exciting Opening Scene that floats somewhat free of the continuity of the story gets slapped onto the front a cowcatcher and I were thinking about technique and other writerly stuff, I would turn to the movies. I'd pull out fifty or a hundred movie openings of this type and study them. Star Wars. Indiana Jones. CSI.  And much so on that does not come to mind just at the minute.

I'd ask meself .  . .
Which of these openings set up intellectual problems?
Which ones give us emotional cliffhangers? 
How do these two types of 'flash openings' treat the transition from opening to the more staid 'second chapter' differently?

Obviously, the basic elements of the 'flash opening' are not the same when the intent is, on the one hand to set a puzzle and on the other to provide a big fat nugget of unresolved fear, angst and trepidation.   The most consistent difference I've seen is that emotional cliffhanging openings are centered on a permanent and to-be-developed character of the story, rather than a redshirt.

Nattering onward . . .
If I were planning an emotional cliffhanger as the opening action, besides picking out my character to menace, I'd be looking at stuff like:

How does the initial action sequence end?
How does the viewer feel when that action sequence is completed?
How does the author segue from that emotional high to the next scene?

(These are cliffs..  The mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall.  Let he who has not hung there scorn them.)

How long does the author take to resolve the emotional issue set forth in that opening?
How much of the story is 'about' that particular emotional issue?
How does the author, in Chapter Two and Three, promise the reader that this emotional problem will get solved?

I toyed with a flash-bang start for Forbidden Rose,
and didn't do it.

Lord, I must have written twenty openings for that book.

So I have all these random thoughts on openings sitting in the back of the brain case, jiggling and getting in the way of thinking.  Doubtless putting stuff on the blog will help to empty my head.

That's Blake's Michael Binds Satan up top.


  1. Interesting post. Thanks. I can't wait to see how you decided to begin FR!

  2. Hi LL --

    I am going to confess that the opening of Forbidden Rose breaks every bit of advice I would give to somebody else. I kept taking the opening out and sticking it back in and pulling it out again.

    I finally decided that I like the opening. And it feels like good story. So I stopped arguing with myself about, which is really a process one cannot win.