From Writer Unboxed:
Twenty-some years ago, while reading a published crime novel for enjoyment, I encountered a first sentence similar to this:
I marched through the restaurant at 5 a.m. Tuesday, ignoring the stench of the dead body and the unhinged sous chef who’d found it.
This sentence immediately popped me from the story. New at the time to story analysis, it took me a while to determine that my problem was with the word “ignore.” Instead of reading on, I sat and wondered, If our first-person POV character is “ignoring” something, why did she mention it? and Does one ever get to a point when one can simply “ignore” the stench of a dead body? and How do you ignore an unhinged sous chef? In the next line, when I learned she was a police detective, I thought, Would a police detective really “ignore” aspects of a crime scene, especially a stench that might inform her that the body had been decaying there since Saturday night, when the restaurant was last open? And if she can ignore these details, should we trust her to have the instincts to solve this murder?
Make no mistake, you do want to raise questions with the opening of your novel, but these were the wrong kind. You also want your opening to be memorable, but not for these reasons. I concluded that the author was implying that this character wasn’t really a very good detective. Having lost faith in the protagonist after just one sentence, followed by a paragraph that did nothing to salvage the situation, I set down the book.
Since then, I’ve learned that creative writing doesn’t have a lot of “rules,” save one:
Give the reader no reason to put down your novel.
It may well be that you’re such a mystery lover that you would have skipped right over this issue and continued on. Reading is subjective, after all. Even so, this one sentence offers up several aspects of craft worth thinking about.
Focus on what your character is doing instead of what she isn’t
I heard this advice early on in my creative writing journey and it has proven to be a worthy guide: Rather than write about what your character doesn’t do, identify what she does do. This will help the reader accumulate details pertinent to her characterization (as opposed to ruling out who she isn’t), while also prompting you-as-author to determine what your character wants in any given scene.
[If that feels like a challenge to your creativity, I too can picture a literary novel beginning with, “Leon Adamzcyk went out to feed his birds at the crack of dawn because he was not the kind of man who wanted to talk to his neighbors.” This could begin a list of other things that Leon Adamzcyk is not, ending this opening with the line, “Problem was, Leon Adamzcyk didn’t know who he was.” Thing is, your readers would know something: he cares about the birds.]
If the detective in the opening story is assigned to this case yet she immediately ignores its specifics, show us why by giving her an alternate scene goal. Maybe her ex owns the restaurant and her first priority is to make sure he’s okay. You can still orient us to the action in the room while she is pursuing that primary goal:
I entered the restaurant at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning and marched straight toward Jimmy’s office, swinging wide around the techs at the crime scene and holding my breath against the stench produced by a corpse at least two days old.
Adding a goal is such a slight change, yet it energizes the scene while at the same time showing her experience. I’d trust this protagonist more; she has a story to tell. Her actions—as opposed to what she is trying to avoid—raise better questions: Who is Jimmy to her? Is he there, or did he leave to avoid her? Did she not look at the body because she couldn’t bear it if it had been him, or perhaps because her emotions are so buttoned up that she saved herself inner turmoil by making sure he was okay first? What is he doing when she finds him: locking his safe? Pacing, his clothes rumpled as if they were yesterday’s? Their conversation would show how she feels about their relationship status and may suggest whether she trusts him or has long suspected his involvement in shady dealings—but it is sure to raise many interesting questions. She can then circle back to get the preliminary report from the crime scene techs.
What she wants to avoid, of course, are the stakes should she not achieve her scene goal—but those dreaded consequences will feel more potent once we find out what it is this detective wants. Let her actions betray this.
Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed