Your Opening and the Great Unwashed

Instead of looking at this opening or that opening, why not start by defining the basic problem: How to open a crime story that’s going to include some kind of crime-solving person (a detective probably)?

There are two basic choices: a) the way it’s usually done or b) something different.

Robert B. Parker always does a. His detective is amused and amusing, laconic, ironic, insightful and easy to be with for the length of a novel. The writing is minimalist, what David Mamet might call “uninflected.”

The woman who came into my office on a bright January day was a knockout. Her hair had blond highlights and her fawn-colored suit appeared to have been hand-sewn by Michael Kors. She took off some sort of fur-lined cape and tossed it over the arm of my couch, and came over and sat down in one of my client chairs. She smiled at me. I smiled at her. She waited. The light coming in my window was especially bright this morning, enhanced by the light snowfall that had collected overnight. She didn’t seem dangerous. I remained calm.

Is there a simpler way to say “She smiled at me. I smiled at her. She waited.”? Does the author give the slightest damn what any literary maven may or may not think of his style? Is he interested in doing anything other than telling the story in an entertaining way?

And the ultimate test: does the reader want to know what happens next?

Note that although the narrator is quite taken with the knockout-ness of the woman, yet the description of her is sparse. Parker knows that if you say “knockout with blond highlights and oh, by the way, probably rich as hell” the reader will fill in the rest in his or her own mind.

Another point: who is more likely to have the sort of problem that piques the typical reader’s interest, that sounds like the most entertaining: a) an old woman, her coat wrapped around her like a shroud, clutching a rosary or b) knockout with blond highlights and oh, by the way, probably rich as hell? Hint: How many newsstand copies does People Magazine sell each week and who are the people that People Magazine is all about? Does this make you consider your personal opinion of people who like People Magazine? Why buys the most genre crime fiction, People Magazine readers or The New York Times Review of Books readers? I don’t know the answer, but I’m willing to guess. Hint: the NYTR has a circulation of 135,000 and People a circulation of 3.5 million.

If you’re going to write a villanelle, you must write a 19-line form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines.

Now, you can write any damn thing you please, but if it don’t follow that form, it’s not a villanelle (or not a correct villanelle).

If you’re going to write a crime story, make it entertaining. If it’s not entertaining, it’s not a good genre story. If the reader reads the first couple paragraphs and does not find them entertaining, the chances are not good the reader will be motivated to spend $9.99 or $2.99 or $0.99 in order to be allowed to continue to read. I’m sorry about this, but it’s not my fault. It’s the crazy upside down world you’ve chosen to inhabit. I agree, you deserve better and more, but that’s the way it is.

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