I’m trying to find my way into the next book, playing around with opening lines and paragraphs. Beginnings set the stage and influence everything that comes after because they set the tone for both reader and writer. Stephen King says opening lines are invitations. William Gibson compared them to handshakes or keys.They introduce us. They open the way.
And yet, sometimes, when writing the first draft, it’s more important to just kick in the door, any door, and get into the story. You can always figure out where the main entrance is once you’re inside. I did that with my latest novel. Scrapped the first chapter in draft two and found a new way in.
A handshake. A key. A fractal?
Let me suggest that the opening line, or paragraph of a book can be a kind of fractal. I don’t know if this would work for other writers, but it’s something I’ve noticed in my own work.
In Red Equinox my main character discovers fractal tentacles surfacing in the walls of abandoned buildings–images that are at first only visible in her infrared photography. It got me thinking about the nature of fractals and how (sort of like holograms) the part contains the whole. The smallest pattern at the tip of a fractal repeats and expands so that when we pan out and take in the whole, we see that same shape writ large.
Could the opening of a novel contain the fractal signature, the DNA if you will, of the whole story?
I think maybe I’ve intuitively done something like this three times now. Since I’m only really qualified to analyze my own work in this way, I hope you’ll indulge me a quick look back at those openings.
Billy Moon didn’t know exactly when he had sold his soul. There had been no pact penned in blood, no dusty crossroads. Maybe it happened that night on the bridge, the night he met Trevor Rail. Maybe his soul was tucked away in one of those paragraphs of legalese he had skimmed over hungrily in his mid-twenties—his eternal spirit leveraged against mechanical royalties and recoupable advances in a five-point font. I sold my soul, he thought, and it fit. Like a perfect chorus summing up the verses of his life, it rhymed with the rest of him.
—The Devil of Echo Lake
Billy Moon, a troubled, confused, burned out rock star is searching his failing (maybe repressed) memories for his identity, and the conclusion he reaches in that first paragraph is the fractal tip of his story, the shape of his past, present, and future. He is a man fighting to reclaim his soul.
There were at least three good playgrounds within a short drive of
the Ocean Road apartment, but on the day Desmond Carmichael
lost his son for a terrifying ten minutes, he had chosen one farther
away, the one they called the Castle Playground. It wasn’t Lucas’s
favorite, but the days when the boy would argue for a favorite
anything were behind them by then. Desmond figured that when a
child loses his mother at the age of three, pretty much every other
preference takes a back seat. He knew that he wasn’t Lucas’s
In Steel Breeze Desmond, a grieving widower wracked with guilt and regret, is about to enter a living nightmare in which he races to save his son from a pair of serial killers. It will take a few chapters for his life to spin out of control, but his grief and fear of further loss are all there at the moment we meet him, a fractal fingerprint on his character with ripples flowing into both the future and the past.
Now we come to Becca Philips, the photographer at the center of Red Equinox.
Death has a way of calling us home, and when it does we put on
our best. Becca Philips hadn’t been to Arkham in years, hadn’t
worn a dress in almost as long, and now here she was, stepping
off the train and feeling out of place in both.
I hope you might feel like you know her already after just two sentences. At least a little. She has left her home town but has been pulled back. She’s an escapee, but what was she running from? She’s a bit of a tomboy. Maybe she’s an outsider in more than just this situation. She’s uncomfortable but rising to the occasion.
And the story to come will continue to challenge Becca to “put on her best” in the face of death.
So there you have it: fractal paragraphs. Your mileage may vary.
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Red Equinox is out now. You can read about the influences and writing process behind the book at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds and John Scalzi’s The Big Idea.
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