Brownie points for knowing the title reference. Yep, we are definitely going to be doing a monthly feature on writing. Might be my process, might be someone else’s. Might be a question from READER NANCY who has been suspiciously quiet lately. (I suspect she’s off doing fabulous things with her own work.) In any event, I thought we’d start with something that struck me recently when I was reading Dorothy Sayers: the power of a good opening.
I’m not going to flog SILENT IN THE GRAVE here. If you’re familiar with the opening line, you know how I feel about a hook. “Grab ’em fast and hang on tight” is my motto. I like the opening lines of a book to reach out to a reader and say, “Oh, you were contemplating putting me down. NO WAY.”
And an opening hook is great. But then what? In STRONG POISON–the first Peter Wimsey book to feature the inimitable Harriet Vane–Sayers does something quite brilliant with the opening that I didn’t register until I picked it up again last month. THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS ARE A TOTAL INFODUMP. There is hardly a line within those chapters that isn’t giving you the complete backstory of how Harriet Vane came to be charged with murder. But it’s done so deftly and in such a distinctive voice because Sayers made the BRILLIANT decision to write it couched as a monologue being delivered by the judge in his summation to the jury.
He outlines everything–Harriet’s relationship with the deceased, what sort of person the victim was, the nature of their relationship, the method of murder, the evidence, the witnesses. We know ALL by the end of the second chapter, and yet it’s done in such a skillful way, we’re lured in to find out the rest. There are a few snatches of dialogue, just enough to show that some people find Harriet sympathetic, and others are ready to see her hang. We know her chances aren’t good, and because series characters we know and like believe in her, we are predisposed to root for Harriet to be acquitted.
BUT WE KNOW SHE WON’T BE. Neither is she convicted. Thanks to a hung jury, Harriet is retried, and it is up to Peter to sleuth out the truth to save her from the hangman’s noose. Peter’s growing feelings for Harriet ratchet up the stakes to impossible heights. It’s the ultimate test of his skills as a detective, as a man, and the reader roots for him just as much as Harriet. But it all goes back to the opening, the brutal, black and white litany of facts that seems to condemn Harriet. Because they come from an official source–and an ostensibly neutral one–we know just how long the odds are.
In any other hands, the infodump would have been unbearable, but because Sayers captures so perfectly the condescending, priggish tone of the judge, we lap it up. Ordinarily the infodump is something to be avoided at all costs, but this opening is proof that with enough skill and care, it can be done–and done brilliantly. (Pro tip: part of the reason it works so well is the repeated asides and bits of conversation Sayers layers in. There is ongoing commentary about how the spectators in the court are receiving the judge’s summation which is an indication to readers as to how THEY are supposed to receive it. Masterful.)