Opening a novel in an interesting way is crucial. I often see stories-in-progress with weak openings. This week, I happened to pick up a copy of the classic Jurassic Park, and I was stopped on the first page with the economy of language. In two brief paragraphs, Crichton sets a scene, introduces a character, puts us into the character’s life, and places us in a Costa Rica fishing village. He accomplishes so much in a brief passage. Let’s look at it to see if it gives us tips on starting our own stories.
Opening of Jurassic Park
The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent. Roberta Carter sighed, and stared out the window. From the clinic, she could hardly see the beach or the ocean beyond, cloaked in low fog. This wasn’t what she had expected when she had come to the fishing village of Bahia Anasco, on the west side of Costa Rica, to spend two months as a visiting physician. Bobbie Carter had expected sun and relaxation, after two grueling years of residency in emergency medicine at Micheal Reese in Chicago.
She had been at Bahia Anasco for three weeks. And it had rained every day.
(First two paragraphs of Jurassic Park, Prologue, by Michael Crichton.)
Weak openings leave me confused, wondering where I am and what is going on. Crichton starts with a specific setting. The second word is “tropical,” which narrows down the location on the globe, while also explaining the type of rain. A “corrugated” roof probably indicates a lower income area where cheaper materials are used for construction.
Notice the great verbs which animate that first sentence: fell, hammering, roaring, splashing. And it ends with a strong descriptive word: torrent. This is masterful selection of language. After one sentence, I know approximately where I am and what is happening.
Next, Crichton focuses on the point-of-view character for this section. Because it’s a prologue, this character won’t be important in the story proper, but he takes the time to give us some of her background, which implies much about her state-of-mind.
She is an ER doctor, just finishing her residency in Chicago, and she thought this trip to Costa Rica would be a vacation. Notice that she’s an ER doc. The old sayings is that you should never put a gun in Chapter 1, if you don’t intend for it to go off sometime. Crichton put an ER doctor in the first paragraph because someone soon would require emergency medical attention. We know Roberta/Bobbie (Notice how he named her fully, then gave us a more casual nickname) is skilled in medicine, but she’s also tired and disappointed with this location.
As far as setting a mood, the torrential storm sets up the possibility of something happening. We’d expect that a “torrent” would bring other problems with it.
Finally, Crichton actually names the locale: Bahia Anasco on the western coast of Coast Rica.
Setting, mood, characterization, anticipation–Crichton sets up so much in just two short paragraphs!
- Systematically inventory and diagnose your manuscript
- Visually manipulate your manuscript to identify problems
- Transform dull characters into fascinating, memorable people
- Strengthen the narrative and emotional arcs
- Sharpen dialogue
- Morph dull settings into backdrops that set the mood
- Enliven narrated events by selecting the right details
- Use language with confidence
- Add depth with narrative patterning In-depth professional development
- Plan your novel’s metamorphosis
Applying Crichton’s Lessons to Your Story
Setting. Readers need to be oriented immediately to the location of your story. While you describe the setting, use language to create a distinctive mood and set up anticipation. Don’t be afraid to name a location directly.
Mood. Choose language that sets up a distinctive mood. The torrential rain is described with evocative verbs and language. Strong, forceful, a force of nature–you expect something to happen, and soon.
Characterization. It’s important to know something about the character. Crichton gives us a name, place of origin (Chicago hospital), and something of her inner life. Bobbie is a strong-willed woman or she wouldn’t be an ER doctor; but she’s tired because of the “grueling” residency. Bone-weary, maybe. The impending emergency that will require her skills will challenge her, not because she’s not capable, but because she’s so tired. That’s great characterization for one paragraph!
Anticipation. How can you not turn the page? Crichton has set up an interesting enough scenario, and populated it with an interesting character that I’m hooked. I would read on! Wouldn’t you?
Avoid weak openings! Study Jurassic Park for hints on how to take your story’s opening to a new level.