Openings with John Dufresne

johndufresne2By Sherry Harris

All the Wicked Cozy Authors are very excited to have John Dufresne, with us today. John is a renown novelist and teacher in the MFA Creative Writing program at Florida International University in Miami. And we think it is wicked awesome that John is a native of Massachusetts! Leave a comment and you will be entered to win your choice of John’s most recent novel No Regrets, Coyote or his most recent book on writing Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months.

John answers the following question asked by Barbara Ross:

John, there are people who say the opening two paragraphs of your book Love Warps the Mind a Little are as close to perfect as an opening gets. Certainly, it’s all there–strong voice, strong presence of character, story momentum, intriguing sense of backstory and tone. What advice do you give about openings?

I tell my students that you should begin your story or your novel when everything but the action is over. Start with the trouble, which I did here. Page one: Laf gets kicked out of his house by his wife. We have big trouble—what now? (We’ll find out why he is exiled soon enough.) And now he has to do something. (Get your characters moving!) He has to take care of himself and that crazy dog he’s leading around on a leash. The story is underway. Begin as close to the end as you can.

A good beginning is full of intimation and assurance, the intimation being that here are characters who have something remarkable to tell us–you’ve never met people quite like these–the assurance being that something compelling, something surprising and unusual, something you just won’t believe, is about to happen. But don’t ever promise what you can’t deliver, and don’t initiate a conflict that you cannot resolve, don’t load a gun that you will not fire or light a fire that you will not put out. And while we’re on don’ts, don’t begin your story with long descriptions or indeed any description without first establishing a point of view. Don’t write, as Snoopy or Edward Bulwer-Lytton would have, “It was a dark and stormy night on the heath. The wind screamed through the heather. Thunder resounded off the nearby cliffs.” Better: “The man pulled the jacket over his head, but the wind-driven rain beat against his face. He wondered how far he had yet to go to reach the doctor’s house. He waited for the stroke of lightning, saw the house over the second hill, stepped carefully.” Now we have point of view, voice, tone, character, theme, setting, trouble, goal, and not simply a vague and innocuous statement of time and place. Begin with specific character, specific incident, specific conversation, and specific mood. A beginning is no time to generalize.

Don’t introduce the story. Just jump into the middle of the action. When you revise begin reading your story with the second paragraph (or the second chapter). You may decide that that’s where the story begins. You’ve had to write the opening to find your way to the story, but we don’t have to read it. Don’t begin with an idea. Ideas are abstract; fiction exists in images, like dreams.

You must catch the reader’s attention immediately or there’s no need to go on. Easier said than done, of course. You can do so with voice, as you mentioned. I once asked my editor, Jill Bialosky, what she looked for in a manuscript that she was considering for W.W. Norton, and she said “A voice I’ve never heard before.”

The first line of your story is the one that breaks the silence and so it’s your most important and poetic line. The first line must take the reader out of her world and drop her into the world of the characters. But you won’t find that line in your first draft. So relax and tell the story. Story is more important than style. The first sentence must make the reader want to go on to the next sentence.

Flannery O’Connor begins well. Pick up a copy of her collected stories and read the opening paragraphs of each story and note how she grabs us by the shoulders and won’t No Regrets Coyotelet go; she has urgent news to tell us and we need to listen.

John Dufresne is the author of five novels. His most recent No Regrets, Coyote is garnering rave reviews. John’s numerous writings include: two short story collections, a full length play, and screenplays. Additionally he’s written two books on writing and creativity: The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel In Six Months. John was a 2012-2013 Guggenheim Fellow.

25 Thoughts

  1. What fabulous advice, John! Thanks so much for joining us here today. I’m going straight back to my current book in revision to check the opening.

  2. I love the idea that the first line breaks the silence. Perfect. I’m going to find my Flannery O’Connor collection to note how she breaks the silence.
    John, you probably won’t remember, but you sent me a nice rejection note recently (RealSouth) and told me my story had too much football and not enough action. Exactly right, but still made me laugh.

    1. Ramona, you wrote a story with too much football? I’m shocked. I’m heading to the library to get a Flannery O’Connor collection. It’s been a long time since I read her!

  3. The advice to go back and read from the second paragraph or second chapter to see where the story really begins is golden. Thank you!

  4. I love the clarity of your advice, thank you! Flannery O’Conner is now on my reading list, and Love Warps the Mind a Little just jumped very almost to the top of it.

  5. Excellent advice. I just finished reading a novel (a very good novel, nominated for a top award) that started too early. I remember wondering why his editor didn’t point that out when we finally got to the crux of the matter in chapter two (or maybe it was chapter three). Just goes to show that you can be a well-established, highly regarded writer and still have room to improve.

  6. I met John at the Florida International University Creative Writing Conference. It is an amazing conference held ever October. I’ve been four times and hope to go back soon.

  7. John thanks for this advice. Digging out my Flannery O’Connor right now—good motive to get my books out of the moving boxes and onto the shelves!

  8. Thanks for the great advice, John. I’ve rewritten my opening a number of times. It takes a lot of work to get it just right.

  9. After reading this post, I ordered Love Warps the Mind a Little and began reading it this morning. Oh, my. It’s one of those books I can read only a few paragraphs at a time. I have to give my smile muscles a rest. I’m only through chapter three and want to give Laf Proulx a hug. He’s so real, so funny, so insane, so refreshing. I’m in love, I thought, then read the title again. I’m in trouble.

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