Saturday, October 16, 2021

Openings and Closings.


RHYS BOWEN: I have never been good at opening things, or closing them, for that matter: Back in the days when I had little children at home and cakes from cake mixes were a regular treat I could never work out how to open the cake mix box. Usually I had to dig a knife in, have a generous amount of mix cascade to the floor before I read the words “Open other end.” Cans, beer bottles all present problems. Interestingly enough I am a whiz at opening champagne, having been taught the trick by my brother. You put a cloth over the cork, hold the cork firmly and twist the bottle. Perfect every time ! 

Perhaps I needed someone in my youth to teach me all the tricks of opening things. And closing them. When I was a student in Germany I worked in a grocery store and sometimes we had to gift wrap boxes of chocolates. Other employees produced these neat and lovely wrapped boxes, tied with ribbon. Mine was—well, sorry looking. 

Let me confess that for Christmas these days I buy bags and tissue paper. So much easier and they can be reused. My daughter actually made a batch of fabric bags one Christmas. I still use them. Another thing I’m useless at is strapping packages with sticky tape. First I can never find the end of the tape, then it sticks to my fingers, curls onto itself and I need at least three tries before I can do any wrapping.

 But this makes me think of my writing. Openings and closings. So vital to know where to come into a story and where to leave it. Too many writers make the mistake of coming in too soon, giving us lots of detail in the first chapter before we get to anything important. Or of introducing too many characters so that we are confused about Paul and Peter and Frank and Richard. Who the hell are they? And where are we? No sense of place. 

I work and rework the opening scene in my head for ages before I actually start a book. Where do we come in to this person’s life? I know many mystery writers start with the dead body. I like to bring a group of characters together, let us watch their interactions and think ‘no good can come of this’ and then one of them is killed. So sometimes I don’t have a murder in the first hundred pages. (It’s against the rules, I know. But the books do win awards so I guess I’m allowed to break the occasional rule). But knowing exactly where to start is important. 

In Murphy’s Law I chose to start AFTER a major event has happened. Molly is fleeing after she kills the landlord’s son when he is trying to rape her. We know she is running away but we only find out the details as the story unfolds. I think it worked well. She says that her dress is sticky at the back, but “about the state of the front of my dress I chose not to think”. I also toy with the first line endlessly until I am satisfied. I don’t think I can ever do better than “That mouth of yours will get you into trouble one day.” 

And definitely not better than Julia’s “It was a hell of a night to throw away a baby!” Brilliant. Brilliant. 

 I also liked the first line from The Tuscan Child: He knew he was going to die. That much was obvious. 

It’s great to tease with the first line.: If Helen Barton hadn’t stepped out in front of an omnibus, I might have still been sweeping floors and lighting fires at an ostentatious house in St. John’s Wood. So instantly the reader asks who is Helen Barton? And they want to know what happened next. 

 That is actually the secret of every novel WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT! IT begins when you read to a small child and say “One day a little chicken found the gate open and wandered out into the forest. In that forest lived a hungry fox.” And you have to turn the page… 

Obviously in many of my books setting the scene is important. Our first page captures the essence of Venice in the Venice Sketchbook. We like to know where we are—time and place. 

But when we come to closings, I’ve had readers complain I’ve ended my books too soon. I was satisfied I’d solved the murder. They want to see the characters happy, moving on, going back to normal lives. They need time to process the shocking events they’ve witnessed, just as the characters themselves need time. Sometimes I like to end on a twist, or a provocative thought. IN Evanly Bodies Evan has solved three murders and found three women who met at a shelter for battered women and each provided the alibi for the other. Brilliant as they didn’t move in the same circles or know anybody in common. But Evan solves it. His superior congratulates him. Evan says “But she won’t go to prison, will she? He was abusing her.” And his superior says “Not at the moment she pulled the trigger.” And Evan realizes he’s condemned these women to jail. 

So how do you like your stories? Do you expect a body in chapter one, or can you take the slower pace of setting the scene.  And do you like the book to go on after the crime is solved? Do you need a satisfying ending? How about you Reds? Do you agonize over your openings and closings?


  1. Quite frankly, I don’t much care if the body shows up in chapter one or if there’s scene-setting first.
    Nor do I care if the book stops as soon as the crime is solved or if the story goes on a bit longer.
    What I really want is for the events to pull me into the story being told and, when I’ve turned the last page, to feel satisfied with how everything played out as the story unfolded.

  2. RHYS: You are definitely not the only one who has trouble wrapping presents. I find it hard to open objects covered in that hard clear plastic. Where do you start cutting to open it?

    As for books, a memorable first line (and chapter) will definitely hook me in. I recognized that brilliant first line from Julia's In The Bleak Midwinter despite having read it 20 years ago.

    I don't need the body/crime to happen right away. Somewhere 1/4 to 1/3 into the book is fine with me. I recently finished a mystery where we did not find out what happened to the victim (a young missing girl) until 3/4 of the way into the book...way too late for my taste! As a result, the ending of that book seem rather rushed and abrupt.

    It can also be harder to please the reader re: endings. Sure, we may like a happy ending with normalcy returning to the community but only if it makes sense to the story. Some books end too abruptly which I find jarring. The pacing is uneven throughout the story. I do like reading series so when a cliffhanger occurs it can be frustrating since it means I have to wait 1-2 years to find out what happens next!

  3. Weird...I posted a comment a few minutes after Joan, and it disappeared an hour later! Trying again.

    RHYS: You are not the only one who has trouble nicely wrapping packages and gifts. My challenge is opening packages wrapped in that hard clear plastic. Where do you start cutting?

    As for books, a memorable first line or chapter will hook me and draw me in to continue reading. I recognized Julia's brilliant first line from "In The Bleak Midwinter" right away even though I read the book 20 years ago. And Hank and Hannah's reading of the first chapters of books in First Chapter Fun shows how important to get the reader interested in wanting to know more.

    No, I don't need the body/crime to happen in the first chapter...somewhere 1/4 to 1/3 into the story is fine with me. One police procedural I read bugged me. A young girl goes missing and we have no idea what happens until 3/4 into the story...way too late for me. As a result, the last 1/4 of the book seem rushed and ended abruptly.

    Endings can be hard to please the reader. I don't expect a happy conclusion and normalcy if it does not make sense in the story. But abrupt endings can be jarring, and cliffhangers in series can be annoying, especially since I know it means that I have to wait 1-2 years to find out what happens next!

    1. Hate the clamshells too Grace! FCF has been a lesson in how to capture readers, hasn't it?

  4. Great post, Rhys. I also work really hard to get the first line right. Agree that Julia's first line wins the prize!

    I just signed a contract with Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for my second story with them. "Bye-bye JoJo" (written for the Bouchercon "Home" themed anthology -but rejected) has the same first and last line: "If that dog doesn't stop barking, I'm going to kill someone."

    I remember learning early on in my writing career to "come late to the party and leave early." But I do like a good wrap-up scene in my cozies My readers like to see equilibrium restored to the community.

    1. Me too on the wrap-ups Edith. I like to see equilibrium restored too, and leave a little hint about what might come next.

    2. Love that line, Edith

    3. Thanks, Ann! Yes, Roberta, a hint, for sure.

  5. Back in the day, when I had no trouble with seeing print on paper, I went to the book store, gathered up an armful of books that I'd heard about or that looked interesting, and I read the first lines. If that didn't pull me in, I put the book aside. It was that simple. If I was intrigued, I might read a little further, but chances were that book would come home with me.

    Now that I read on my Kindle almost exclusively -- sorry LUddites -- I order a sample first. Then I have a chapter or two, but still that first line is important but just not a deal breaker. (The Kindle is a boon for someone with arthritic hands and the need for adjusting the font depending on need.

    As for endings, I don't like to get left wondering what just happened! I prefer resolution, and I'm not crazy about a cliff hanger. But if I've got that far, chances are I've liked the book, so an inconvenient ending is forgiven.

    In retrospect, I think I've been better at starting things than ending things. I'll leave it at that.

  6. It's not only a fancy first line that draws the reader in...the writer has to follow through with characters or plot so tempting that it can't be put down. A favorite opening from one of my books is this from FATAL RESERVATIONS:

    The first time Miss Gloria almost died, she came out of the hospital rigid with fear. The second time, just before Christmas, she came out fighting.

  7. My comment, written at 6:00 am just disappeared, too. Ugh. Too bad.

    1. WEIRD: There are gremlins online today, JUDY!

    2. It has eaten up my comments again. I give up.
      Grace, how are you doing since the eye operation? Is your vision clearer yet?

    3. AAARGH, that is frustrating, Judy!
      As for my vision, only a slight improvement so far.
      So I can read/type better on the laptop but all icons/text on my smartphone and tablet are still blurry.

  8. Rhys, I also have problems opening things. Bottles and containers safe for children are alas safe for me too.
    My pharmacy changed their prescription containers recently , I had to ask them to put mine in the last model because of my difficulties with the new one.
    Wrapping a gift isn’t my strength either.
    As for my mysteries, they have to catch my attention and keep it. They also need to have at least one character I get attached to.
    Like Edith and Lucy, I like a good wrap-up scene and equilibrium restored at the end.

  9. I don't need a dead body right away - actually, I rather like thinking about who the dead body might be, as I am reading. I like a sense of place so I can picture the events. Not too many characters all at once, so opening with say, a cocktail party, makes for a lot of confusion.

    But I am always asking 'then what happened?' I have to know. Even when the book is finished, if the author has done a great job with her characters, I can use my imagination to answer that question.

  10. "Determined to savor every last bit of marmalade, Betsy Butler swiped her finger around the inside of the jar and licked it clean." "Black Market Baby" in Masthead: Best New England Crime Stories 2020.
    I don't need a body in the first chapter, but if I'm a hundred pages into a story I start looking for one.

  11. I'm terrible at opening packages and always reach for a knife, at which point my husband asks if I will need a band-aid or a tourniquet. That said, I wrap gorgeous packages. Gift packages. If it's something that requires the thick package tape its 50:50 who has more on them, the package or me.

    I like to ease into a mystery. Get to know the people and figure out who the victim will be and why. It's like solving a mystery within a mystery. Years ago one of my bosses asked why I read so many British mystery novels (this is in the early 1980s). I explained it was because the murder happened later and I had a chance to know the characters. In US mysteries of the time, the body dropped in the first chapter. Too soon for me to care. As for endings, as long as it is satisfying, and equilibrium is restored, I'm happy. I am not a fan of the after arrest rehash that goes over every clue.

  12. Thank you, Rhys! I always say I'll never write an opening line better than that one, but it was my first book, so it definitely did its job. I also like somewhat ambiguous endings, and have one book where, at the end, Russ and Clare figure out who was behind all the murder and mayhem - but nothing can be proved, and the villain remains untouched.

    You're so right about "What happens next?" It doesn't have to be murder or a bomb about to go off. If the readers care about the characters and you leave a trail of breadcrumbs, they'll follow you all the way through to the end. And they often, as you observe, want to know what's next after the end of the story!

  13. Isn't that funny, Julia? I detest ambiguous endings. I like everything tied neatly into a bow at the end.

    Character dumps at the beginning of a book are so difficult to follow, especially in a crowd scene where each person is given a name, but very little in the way of identifying characteristics. And fuggeddaboudit if the various characters have similar names. I'm at the point in my life where I'm unwilling to work that hard to read a book. It has to present a problem for authors, I'm sure, though.

    I recently read a book from the middle of a lengthy and long-running series. So many of the characters--who the reader was clearly expected to recognize--were unfamiliar to me, but they were all dumped into the action in the first chapter. I muddled through, but it took me awhile to really get into the story.

    Abrupt endings are unsatisfying, and always make me wonder. Did the word count threshold come sooner than expected? Was a deadline looming? But I don't recall ever thinking that about any of your books, Rhys.

  14. I don't care when the body count starts--page 1 or page 100, I don't care how the author wraps up the story or whether there's a cliffhanger. What matters to me is whether the author hooks me when the gate goes up and keeps me sucked in until the finish line is crossed with the last word on the last page. Are your characters believable? Is your setting indelibly etched into the story? Does the plot make sense? Yes? Then take me along for the ride, please! Some books are so good, I immediately reread them just to savor the story all over again.

    As for packing tape? Yikes. Clamshells? Ouch. Pretty gift wrap? I'll give it my best shot.

  15. My favorite UNpackaging instruction: OPEN THIS FLAP FIRST
    To which I add a comma: Open this, flap first.

    I reuse gift bags, too. Wrap first in tissue paper. And STILL we have piles of waste.

  16. Gift bags for the win! And, yes, it is so important to keep the reader wanting more. Great post, Rhys.

  17. My favorite unpacking instructions: On the wall of the bathroom by the roller-towel dispenser. PULL DOWN, TEAR UP
    I always want to rip the whole dispenser off the wall and stomp on it. But that's just me.
    And yes, always gifts bags and tissue paper. LOVE to reuse them.

    1. That is SO FUNNY!!!! That is the funniest thing I have every heard. Rhys, you are HILARIOUS.

    2. Because I am SO sad that I ripped it off the wall. HAAAA. You just made my day. xx

  18. And yes, first lines: My fave of mine is from AIR TIME:
    It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.

  19. AND as for the bodies on page one, chapter one--I agree with Judi! If I know I'm reading a mystery, and I know someone will get killed, I think it's fun to speculate about who that might be! And easier to care if you are invested in them in some way or other.
    And my favorite part of my books to write is the coda--the emotional ending after the mystery ending.

  20. The trick with sticky tape that adheres to itself is to always fold a quarter inch of the tape over before letting the tape go. You are welcome.
    I am not found of cliff hangers either. A nudge maybe, waiting even a week for a tv cliff hanger can be too much for this person.
    If an author is introducing us to a multitude of characters, having a cast list up front is really helpful. Beginning? middle end..not a problem.. broken plot? beeeg problem.

  21. Rhys, I think the secret to un-packaging is having the right tools. (Channeling the hubby here.) I have a good pair of scissors and a utility knife in the kitchen and can get most things open, although the clamshells are challenging. We have tape gun, too, which makes sealing packages a snap. I'm good at wrapping gifts, too (taught by my dad) but love re-using gift bags. We've been recycling some of ours for years.

    As for book openings, I certainly don't require a murder on the first page. I'm happy to get to know the characters and the setting, and especially the author's voice.

    I've written some books with early murders but most of mine tend to meander a bit!

  22. Around here, I open most packages and almost all the wine bottles. Thanks for the champagne instructions, Rhys. I'll try that next time!
    Gift wrapping is something I actually enjoy doing. Reusable gift bags are really nice, too.

  23. I am very happy to let the plot slowly unroll. It gives me time to get familiar with the characters and the lay of the land. As for the resolution I need more than a solution to the mystery. I need to know the characters I'm invested in are going to be okay.

  24. Oh, Rhys, the gift wrapping comments made me laugh. I'm somewhat better now, but when I was in college and working part-time at a drugstore, the manager decided we should offer gift wrapping around the holidays. When it came my turn to be on gift wrapping duty, I warned him that I wasn't very good at it. I think he must have thought I just didn't want to do it, but after seeing a few packages I'd wrapped, he relieved me of that duty.

    First lines. I often quote Julia's as the example of a perfect one. And, Jim Ziskin, in his Ellie Stone book Heart of Stone, has a perfect first page, in which his description of the surrounding woods as Ellie drives envelopes the reader. Jim said his editor wanted him to delete that description, but Jim fought for it. I wonder how many great openings almost didn't make it. I definitely don't have to have a dead body in the opening scenes, although I've seen it work beautifully either way. I know that prologues are a love/hate topic, and I happen to be on the side of love, with the caveat, of course, that it be a well-written one that gets me excited about the book that follows.

    Book endings. I don't appreciate an ambiguous ending at all. I don't want to figure out what it means. I want a story to be clearly over, with no innuendo that leaves the reader scratching her head. Although, I seem to be able to abide a book in a series leaving some lingering questions or suggestions that this isn't the whole story.

    Rhys, as opening cake mix boxes goes, that bag inside with the powdered cake mix is a challenge for me. It does seem that it is made as a challenge to whether you can open it without any of the mix flying out. There's a certain over-the-counter medicine I take that requires a sharp knife to get an individual packaging open, and then you hope the pill doesn't fly out and end up on the floor. I cannot understand this difficult packaging at all. Do they not want you to take it?

    1. Oh, Kathy, I so recognize your OTC med opening issue. I have the same one. At home, I have started using a box cutter (utility knife) around the edge of the plastic cage (for lack of a better word) and, like you pray, the little, itty bitty pill doesn't fly off the counter. At the office, a pair of scissors along one edge of the cage and then try to squeeze that little bitty pill on to my desk.....gggrrrrrr!!!!

  25. Sorry this is late. I hope I am not too late commenting here. I slept in this morning because I was up late last night reading STRONG POISON by Dorothy Sayers.

    Rhys, I always thought your closings in all of your novels were perfect and I am VERY picky about that! I often see new to me novelists end a story too early or run a few chapters too long when they could have finished earlier.

    My writing teacher for my online cozy mystery novel writing class advised us to have a dead body in the first 30 pages. I will have to review my notes. Some novels have several chapters before there is a dead body. Some novels have a dead body in the first chapter. It does not really matter to me when as long as the writing is excellent.

    Quite agree with you about "character dumping". Again, my writing instructor warns us about putting in too many characters at once. As a reader, I noticed that I often get confused about who is who. That NEVER happens with your novels.

    Off the top of my head, MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen was confusing because I could not remember who was who. I confused the cousins with the aunts.

    As a reader, I have noticed that many new novels have Multiple Points of View and dual or triple timelines, which throws me off. These are often DNF for me. I liked how Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs approaches the dual time line because the flashback was right in the middle then the end was back to 1929. It was not back and forth.

    Still thinking about opening lines and closing lines. One of my favorite cozy mystery authors writes two series. In one of her series, the book always starts with "They say..." and that is her writing style. Her creation of characters are wonderful.

    Yes, I always had difficulties opening cake box mixes. Once in a while there is a cake mix box with clear dot lines to tear off. Same with cereal boxes. I have to use a knife to open the tortilla chips bag.


  26. Opening the bag of inside the box of cake mix is easy. Pull bag from box. Put bag in mixing bowl. Slice bag with knife or put a nice hole in it. CAREFULLY turn bag over in the bowl and gently lift. If you are using a knife to open the box you may want to turn the box over into the bowl and let the bag slide out of the box before you open it with the knife. :) Now getting a good grip in a jar or bottle to unseal is a different event entirely. I have have tapped (thumped) jars in the counter, used the handle of heavy knives and actually turned the bottle upside down and run hot tap water around the edge to loosen the seal. Can't really do all of that with bottles containing carbonated beverages.

    Gift wrapping was a major event at Grandma's home during the holidays. Gifts were kept in the shopping bags until the dining room was set up. Paper, some of which might have been saved from previous years was stacked on the table and or buffet. Tape and scissors were on the table. Boxes of package decoration and bows were brought down from the attic. The bows were categorized by size. It was an art project and I got pretty good at it. Now I usually use plain brown paper and crochet long chains of multi colored and multi number of yarn for the ribbon. One trick I've learned about brown paper, which is usually stiff, is to use a small piece of tape to hold for an initial hold until I can get a bigger piece cut or have several precut on the edge of the table that I can just pull up and apply.

    If the book doesn't have dead body at the beginning, it's fine, they will show up eventually. I can get confused and loose someone if too many people entered all at once. Sometimes I have to go back to reintroduce myself to a character from the beginning of a book if there are too many all at once. I don't mind cliff hangers in series as long as the murder in the current book is resolved.

  27. I'm always late whenever I get to comment, as I constantly am interrupted while trying to
    read them all. Love this post, and can so relate, plus laughed so hard about opening things! Don't need a dead body to happen immediately, and I enjoy getting to know the characters. I like things resolved at the end, but don't mind a wee bit of a foretelling of what's to come.

  28. Yes, I have trouble opening things. I once stomped on a bottle of Excedrin until it broke, then put the pills in the old bottle. I had to take medicine back to the pharmacy so they give me the old people cap now.

    The murder or crime doesn't have to take place right away. Just don't take so long that I wonder if this is a mystery. A good resolution is important to me. I like the details about the crime and also about their personal lives.

  29. I just got to this now, but thoroughly enjoyed, and learned from, both Rhy's writing and all your comments. Thank you. The tricky part of beginning for me is that I must not follow a pretty good first sentence with a lot of scene setting! That's a lesson I learn again and again.

  30. I don't need the body in chapter 1, but I need some kind of conflict.

    I enjoy a bit of a wind down after the crime is solved, especially if there are a few threads to wrap up. But it isn't completely necessary.