|Alfred "Lash" LaRue (1921-1996)|
When I was a boy in the 1940s I enjoyed going to the ten-cent movie theater just off the square in my hometown and watching black-and-white cowboy movies. My heroes included Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, Hopalong Cassidy, The Durango Kid, Red Ryder, and Lash LaRue. Sorry ladies, no female Western movie heroes back then. (There was Judy Canova, but she was not in the same league as the men.)
To put those old movies into perspective for you young'uns, Lash LaRue taught Harrison Ford how to use a bullwhip in the Indiana Jones movies.
The Western movies of my youth often began with a stagecoach roaring down a dusty road, the bad guys chasing and shooting, the stagecoach guard lying on top and shooting back. Soon the stagecoach was surrounded by the bandits. The guard would jump onto the horse of a bandit and they went tumbling down a hillside.
Flash forward to the Indiana Jones movies—they all begin with action, or an exotic mystery that quickly leads to action.
How experts do it
Novelist James Patterson begins I, Alex Cross with a young woman wearing only her underwear, running through woods with bullets whizzing past and being slapped and scratched by tree branches. She stumbles onto a rural road, flags down a pickup truck, and climbs into the cab.
“Don’t let them get me,” she says to the driver.
“The men from the White House.”
You have to turn the page.
Cultural historian Teva Scheer is author of Governor Lady, the biography of America’s first female governor, Wyoming’s Nellie Tayloe Ross. Scheer begins with seven-year old Nellie and her family standing on the banks of the Missouri River near St. Joseph, watching their bluff-top house burn to the ground. Then she fills in the backstory.
How I do it
My brother and I are writing our family history. Suppose we began like this:
“I was born July 29, 1939 in a house in Marshall, Missouri, the second of three boys.” Dull. And a sure-fire way to stop readers from turning the page, or even finishing the page.
Instead, we start like this:
“Dad never liked his given name, Aloysius Elias. ‘What kind of parents give a name like that?’ he said on several occasions. Parents of strong German heritage, I learned.”
When I speak to groups I start my talks with something that grabs attention, such as:
“I used to be a pretty nice guy until I started using computers.”
“I don’t like it. It’s hard work, time consuming, boring, I would rather be doing something else, and there is nothing in the Bible about it.”
Quotes can immediately establish rapport with your audience and set the tone for your stories. Here are several I've used:
“There never was an uninteresting life. Such a thing does not exist.” Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910).
“It is not enough to write to be understood. We must write so we cannot possibly be misunderstood.” Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).
“I retired 17 years ago and have been behind in my work ever since.” Shirley Povich (1905-1998), sportswriter for the Washington Post.
Whether it is the first chapter in your book or the eighth, begin with the action or something interesting. Your readers will love it.
Photo courtesy TV-cowboys.com.
How have you used action or something interesting to open your stories?