In my last newsletter, “Editing Out the Lightbulb“, I asked for feedback on how to begin The Devil Particle and received twenty-four responses! To refresh your memory, here were the choices:
“The burnt-out lightbulb makes a satisfying ‘pop’ as I crush is under my sneaker. I’d pick up the broken pieces but it’s noon, the street is empty, and no one’s watching. I hear humming. No time to run, I crouch in the middle of the street and cover my head.”
“Asher is missing. He left at 7:30 this morning for his four-hour shift at the Child Depository. It’s now past 1:00. Dad called his supervisor; Ash never showed. First time he’s missed a day in five years.”
And the results . . . ten readers liked the first opening, twelve preferred the second, and two wanted a combination of both. A split decision! This was a surprise. What was particularly interesting is that people in both camps had similar reasons for the selection they made.
Here are some of the comments:
Keep the lightbulb:
- There was just something about the way it was written that drew me to it.
- Leaves a lot to the imagination.
- I know exactly what is happening and then I don’t, all in the same paragraph. That’s fun. I can visualize the lightbulb, so I know what is happening and then with the humming I don’t know what is going on. I want to read on.
- It immediately caught my interest–what’s the humming? Is it a drone taking pictures of him? Is he in trouble? My first thought for your second opening was, I don’t care that Asher’s missing, I don’t know him, maybe he’s a bad person and it’s good he’s missing, but then again I don’t know what happens next.
- It’s active and leaves more unanswered questions.
- I like the lightbulb. I’d have to read more, but it shows something about the main character in the first bit and I think that is a big plus. And it’s a bit vague, which makes me wonder what it means about the character. The second option is from other people’s pov’s. Not as strong a start, in my opinion.
Start with Asher’s disappearance instead:
- Everyone knows what a lightbulb is but I don’t know anyone who’s familiar with a Child Depository.
- The lightbulb doesn’t offer much since it doesn’t appear to be either a foreshadowing or a metaphor within the story. I like (Ray Rhamey’s) suggestion of starting with the running/drone sequence. As for “Asher is missing,” that sentence alone causes me to wonder why. And to wonder who Asher is. But since I don’t know Asher yet, or the dad, the timestamps and the fact that he hasn’t missed work in five years doesn’t grip me.
- The words invoke a feeling of urgency, tension, and wanting to know where Asher is. The clincher is he didn’t show up for his shift. Then I learn he hasn’t missed a day in five years. This opening allows the reader to be drawn into the story immediately. I didn’t feel any of this with the other version.
- Nix the lightbulb. While the details are nice it doesn’t draw the reader into the action.
- I lean toward the second because I think a better, clearer story question is raised. First one raises a question, “What’s the hum and why do you duck?” but it’s too vague to know if it’s going to be a serious problem or not.
- Find another place for the lightbulb passage because you’re right, it does tell us something about the kid but it’s unclear what – he’s a vandal and just likes crushing things? he’s angry and that’s his way of dealing? And the last line about covering his head is confusing – there’s no one around but suddenly there’s humming and he’s covering his head from?? It’s description and world-building but the second passage sets up a conflict/a problem which is better for an opening.
- The second one is a grabber, the first one is set up with little tension.
My writer friend, Abby Morrison, put it very well when she explained why she liked the original lightbulb opening. The reader’s psychic distance from the character is very close in that scene. You’re experiencing these curious things as they are happening to the character.
In the second beginning, events are summarized rather than experienced. And, as several of you pointed out, the reader doesn’t know Asher yet and hasn’t built the necessary sympathy to care. Abby also mentioned that she reads a lot of young adult novels and many start out with a strong declarative sentence like, “Asher is missing.” These beginnings work, but she preferred the originality of the first opening.
So, no surprise, I’m reworking the first chapter. I’ll keep the lightbulb, but highlight its importance and heighten the tension by adding necessary details (the humming is from a drone) and showing more of the character’s struggle. Okay, back to work.
Where I’ll be this summer: