Writing Fixes: The Weak Opening

download (1)Everyone in the literary world is talking about the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, her sophomore novel that continues the story of Pulitzer prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. When the opening chapter was released a few days ago, reactions were mixed. I read it and was once again struck by my little writing maxim: There are two kinds of writing: Writing that works and writing that needs work.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some fixes for a novel’s weak opening?

Driving to the Story

In Watchman, Lee serves up the classic “driving to the story” weakness. This type of beginning usually has some hallmarks: A character, alone on stage, is riding a plane, train or automobile, while thinking about her past. I’ve written plenty on why this is risky:1) A  lone character will be harder to interact with if he’s the only one around. 2) Readers are usually trapped inside the character’s head, thinking, for extended periods, often before they have had a chance to get to know him or her. 3) This type of opening almost always relies heavily on back story to inform the reader of why the character is returning to or going someplace new. I’ve said before that readers will gladly sacrifice  back story and thinking scenes for action, dialogue and real-time stakes. Watchman’s only advantage, in my opinion, is the quality of Lee’s writing voice and the fact that I already know a lot about this character through Mockingbird. Otherwise, I can imagine most any editor seeing potential but urging a rewrite. If your story opens this way, you may want to consider starting the story a bit later, getting at least one other character onstage and learning to weave in important back story as the plot unfolds. See my posts on The Rule of Three for back story helps.

Exposition

A second complaint about Lee’s “new” novel is that the opening is very heavy on exposition. We learn all sorts of info about Maycomb County and some of its residents. Yet the text feels rather dry until Hank appears in back story and later on, actually comes on stage. Remember, exposition feels the slowest to readers–there are mostly facts and figures, and little emotion due to the lack of characters acting out the story. Again, Lee squeaks by with her engaging voice, but if she’d gone on for even one more sentence she might have lost most of her readers. In your story, exposition is like Roundup weed killer. It’s going to kill a LOT of stuff, including tension, conflict and character emotion. The speed of the story (or pace) often depends on the right balance of this hierarchy: Dialog is perceived as quickest, followed by scenic action, narrative, description and in dead last place, exposition. If you want to “educate” your reader, write for encyclopedias. If your story is all dialog, it’ll zip by too quickly. If there is nothing but description or exposition, it’ll drag. Take a look at your work and identify how much or little you’ve dedicated to balance these elements. Adjust for balance.

A Sense of Urgency

The opening for Watchman has another flaw. The sense of urgency (which is what keeps readers turning pages) is very gradual in the opening pages. We already know that the grown-up Scout, now Jean Louise, will find a different place than the one she left, but until we get to Hank we see little tension, although the character’s observations about the townsfolk do illustrate an abiding simmer, especially in regards to race. Most novels will not sustain interest if the angle of tension is this gradual. As Kurt Vonnegut stated, “Make your character want something right away, even if it’s a glass of water.” Jean Louise’s wants aren’t clear (unless you count her wanting to get out of the sleeper car bed she gets trapped in) as we get off the train with her. Only Lee’s incredible Southern voice pushes this chapter forward, in my opinion. So, it works–barely.The rest of us need to be sure we know what our characters want desperately and show this need to our readers right away. In cases where back story clogs Chapter One, this weakness can be fixed by lopping off that first chapter and starting the story a little farther in.

Your Turn: What’s your reaction to Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing Fixes: The Weak Opening

  1. This morning I read the first ten pages of Go Set a Watchman–and fell asleep. I probably would have set it down sooner if anyone other than Lee wrote it. Disappointing, indeed. Sad part is that I agreed to do a blogroll review on the book and I don’t want to finish reading this history-making novel. Perhaps the story will improve. Otherwise it will be a long couple of weeks.

    • Sue,
      I wish it weren’t true that the opening commits some of the same errors new writers make on their first novels. But it should give us reason to persevere: Even a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist struggles with the same problems as the rest of us mortals. Keep learning, keep writing.
      Linda

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