, , ,

A novel makes serious demands on one’s time and attention. The author must make an offer worthy of the demand. Any decent writing advice will commend the interruption in the routine as a good way to establish conflict and create interest. The trouble is that such surprise openings sound dull: I don’t really care that Thomas called Samantha out of the blue until I care about Thomas and Samantha.  Thus, too often, the entry of a novel sounds like bad gossip.

Charles Williams, a third “Inkling” (with Tolkein & Lewis) solved that problem in the introduction to his novel War In Heaven:

The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.

A few moments later there was. Lionel Rackstraw, strolling back from lunch, heard in the corridor the sound of the bell in his room, and, entering at a run, took up the receiver. He remarked, as he did so, the boots and trousered legs sticking out from the large knee-hole table at which he worked, but the telephone had established the first claim on his attention.

“Yes,” he said, “yes…No, not before the 17th…No, who cares what he wants?…No, who wants to know?…Oh, Mr. Persimmons. Oh, tell him the 17th…Yes…Yes, I’ll send a set down.”

He put the receiver down and looked back at the boots.

The criminal and the mundane collide in a comic, horrible scene. We are let into a secret which even the character inside the novel does not know. The man takes time for a phone call of no importance, while a body lies tucked up under his table.

Who was the corpse? Why is it there? Why isn’t Lionel surprised by someone’s legs under his table?

This is how to write an opening.