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John Yeoman's Writer's Village

It is sad to admit that I only came across John Yeoman after his death. When I subscribed to his blog, I got this letter--

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John Yeoman cwriting@btinternet.com




to me
Thank you for your email. It is with sadness that I pass on the news that John Yeoman passed away peacefully this month (July). This email account is no longer being regularly monitored, and the website and content will no longer be updated.

John has left us somewhat in the dark about the detailed comings and goings of his website and creative endeavours. I hope that you still manage to get enjoyment from his little corner of the internet, however all incoming and outgoing payments from the business Paypal account have been cancelled as of 13th July. Please be assured if you have donated to MacMillan Cancer Support via John we are sending a substantial cheque to this great organisation.

Thank you for your contributions thus far helping the community become the success it has... and far more importantly, for keeping my dad entertained in his retirement years.
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It is interesting to note how his spirit lives on on his blog. I've been getting each writing tip ever since.


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This is the 12th Module:

Writers' Village 'Master Class' Module #12
Four compelling ways to open a story 
 
Why should you read this story? Because I promise you that, just five minutes from now, you will know four brilliant ways to open a story. Used skilfully, they never fail.

(Please note how skilfully I have opened this story! Well, you've read at least this far -:))

Why is the opener vital? Before we can expect our readers to applaud our story (and buy our next one) we must coax them to read it. Modern openers are terse and simple, even in novels. And they usually involve no more than two or three characters.

Earlier novelists could happily tell us the whole history of Renaissance Florence - and enthral us with the genealogy of a hundred families - before the plot even got going. Today’s successful novelist cuts to the chase and slips in the background colour when the reader’s not looking.

What makes a good opener? 

Anything arresting but not too offensive can serve but, unlike that infamous attention-getter ‘Free money!’, the promise must then be fulfilled. Here are four arresting ways that novelists have used to open a story. The stories succeeded, and not least because they fulfilled the promise suggested in their first paragraphs.


1. Shock.

‘The Whistler’s fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9:40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb’s Marsh.’
P. D. James, Devices and Desires



So underplayed is the language in this paragraph that the reader probably has to read it twice to take in its horror. Valerie is a child. Note the child-like way in which her age is spelled out and the casual reference to the Whistler, as if he is already stalking the land like a dark creature of legend.
2. Riddle.

‘The question I find most difficult to answer; the one which always crops up sooner or later when the subject is mentioned, is, approximately: “But how on earth did you come to get yourself mixed up in a crazy affair like this, anyway?" John Wyndham, Web

Wyndham poses a puzzle that the reader, willing or not, feels compelled to explore. Do you see how he defers the punch-line, like a skilful comedian, with a succession of commas and seemingly irrelevant clauses across all of 43 words?
3. Intriguing emblem.

‘He looked like a bird of prey, all black and swooping against the silver sheen of ice. He was an elderly gentleman. He was very good on the blades.' Thomas Gifford, The Assassin

Indeed, this character - portrayed at once as ‘all black’ and a ‘bird of prey’ - is ‘very good on the blades’. He is an assassin. The sinister undertones are made all the more alarming by his incongruous description as ‘an elderly gentleman’.
4. Threat.

‘Dmitri asked, “Do you know we’re being followed, Mr Stanford?”
“Yes.” He had been aware of them for the past twenty-four hours.' Sidney Sheldon, Morning, Noon & Night

From just these few words, the reader has grounds to suspect that the protagonist is a man of substance (Dmitri treats him deferently), that the story takes place in Eastern Europe (‘Dmitri’), and that something unpleasant is about to happen.
Cut to the chase

Open a dozen successful novels at random and you’ll find a dozen, seemingly different, openers. But I wager most of them will fall into one of those four categories. And most of them will ‘cut to the chase’ - that is, they’ll plunge the reader straight in medias res, into the heart of the story.

Erle Stanley Gardner was a master of this ploy. Here’s how he opens one Perry Mason story:

‘Della Street, Perry Mason’s confidential secretary, said, “John Addison is on the phone, Chief. He’s so excited he’s sputtering.”
‘“John Racer Addison?”
‘“Yes. The department store man. He sounds as though he’s about to explode into the telephone.”'Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Vagabond Virgin

A less astute novelist might have taken a thousand words to get across all that information - the characterisation of the main players (‘confidential secretary’, ‘Chief’, ‘the department store man’), an emotional conflict (‘sputtering’, ‘explode’), and an enthralling plot about to unfold. Gardner does all that, and throws the reader straight into the tale, in just 38 words.

Nobody writes a strong opener at the first - or even tenth - attempt. So don’t try to perfect it in your first draft. Finish the story and then return to the start.

It may take you as long to hone the opener as it did the entire story. And so it should, because the opener is the most important part of your story.

Indeed, it’s nearly – but not quite - as important as the covering letter to your agent!  
One classic way to open a story...

is to put the essence of your plot into the first line, expressed as an intriguing question. 'You can't have a murder without a body, can you?' That's the opening of one of my novels and - in just ten words - it conveys the nugget of the plot. Several nasty murders appear to have taken place but where are the bodies?

If you can also frame your opening question in a line of dialogue, your opener will have even more power. Dialogue is dynamic by its nature.
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I AM WRITING THAT BOOK. 

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