Tuesday, June 8, 2010

No Dumping Allowed

First of all, my sincere apologies for not posting yesterday. Google was experiencing some type of glitch in their technology, and I was unable to post anything. Apparently, that's been fixed now and we're back on track. So, let's get on with it.

A recurring question, and one that continues to plague writers, is as old as the craft itself: Where do I start? Today we're going to look at that question and provide some examples on how other writers have done it. Before we get to those, I want to discuss one habit that's quite common to new writers. It's called info dumping. As writers, we're very generous. We want to provide our readers with all the background information ahead of time so everything works out in a neatly choreographed narrative and makes sense from the first word. That's not always necessary, and many times it's not what you need to do.

From our previous posts, you'll possibly remember the importance of that first sentence and first paragraph. So, if the recommendations in this post sound slightly familiar, it's because that idea is still valid. It's very important to hook the reader as soon as possible. Many times, we begin before the action does with what's referred to as "backstory." The reader starts reading, and they'll continue reading until one of two things happens. Either you finally give them something interesting, or you take too long to get there and the reader's patience runs out and they close the cover.

Let's look at a couple of examples that will better explain what we're talking about. We'll start with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which he begins with:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

He doesn't tell us that it was a dark and stormy night, or that the house was two stories with a long staircase leading upward. He doesn't tell us who lives there, what kind of furniture is in the living room, or what color the house is painted or that the cars are driving past the house and the water is splashing from their tires. We don't need to know that the story is taking place in Cleveland, or Seattle, or New Brunwick. With a mere dozen words, he's pulled us in and the story has begun. We're on board from that point on.

Stephen King also uses very few words as he lures us into Cujo:

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.

Again, there's no info dumping before that grabber sentence. He doesn't say what year it was, what the weather was like, or where Castle Rock is located. We don't care that there are lobsters just offshore that the fisherman go after every morning in their wooden boats as the gulls squawk above them, hoping the fishermen will toss them a morsel. He just tells us what happened and challenges us to read on and find out. And we do.

George Orwell entices the reader to continue with this opening line from 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This is one of my favorites. It's from Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz:
When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.

These are but a few gems that I've collected today, specifically for this post. There have been many great books published that don't captivate the reader so completely in so few words, but the purpose of this post is to repeat an earlier suggestion to be frugal and choose wisely the words you use for your opening. It can make a big difference in getting a request for more material.


  1. Well I thought I'd add my oneliner to see if it grabs anyone. LOL.

    Stepping off the plane was like waking up new, fresh, and re-born.

  2. Funny you added 1984 to the list of "non-dump" openings, since over on The Alchemy of Writing blog yesterday, it was called out as one of the all time longest info-dumps in history. Approx. 120 pages upfront of nothing but telling. Yet another reason I hate that book.

  3. I like this post. That's one of the biggest hurdles I've really got to get over. I feel I'm cheating a reader if I don't let them know everything I know about a character, even though I'm aware they're not as interested in every aspect of my character as I am. :-)


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