With Something Aimed Primarily to Shock
It’s not uncommon for an, “ew,” to interrupt the everyday workings of the Darley Anderson Agency. It’s not even unheard of for one of our readers to be heard exclaiming, “that word again,” when first opening a submission. You know the one I’m talking about.
And believe me, none of us are all that sheltered or naïve. Or if we were when we started reading the submission piles we certainly aren’t anymore.
Now, I am absolutely not saying that you shouldn’t be shocking your reader. Twists, turns, violence, swearing, getting your reader to appreciate something raw and real that they might never have even wanted to think about before but maybe should; these all have an excellent place in a good novel. Keep your reader on their toes, open their eyes, address difficult subjects. Please do all of these things, they’re exactly what storytelling is for.
But never do any of these things purely to shock and definitely not in your opening lines.
1. It probably won’t shock anyone.
If you leap out and shout, “BOO!” at someone once you’ll probably get a jump out of them. Do it a second time a few minutes later and they might still flinch. Become known as that slightly strange individual who can be counted on to yell, “BOO!” at least twelve times in any one conversation? Well then, people will probably stop inviting you to parties eventually.
Think of a literary agent as a person well-accustomed to jump scares. You won’t shock them by barging right into your story midway through a graphic sex scene or opening with a four letter word.
If you’re going to do these things make sure you have a much better reason for doing them than to shock.
2. It’s transparent more than it is gripping.
Imagine if you met that serial BOO-er for the first time at one of the last parties they were ever invited to. Imagine if their opening line was an aggressively loud, “BOO!”
Would you instantly warm to them? Would you be driven to find out more about them? You might be worried about them but you are unlikely to think, “I want to hang out with this guy.” I expect the best-case scenario is that you would interpret their behaviour as a misjudged overcompensation for their own social awkwardness and feel a bit bad for them.
Opening your novel with an obvious scare tactic has a similar effect. It feels like a distraction technique, as if you might be trying to move the attention away from your writing and maybe don’t feel that confident of your own abilities.
Instead of going in for a friendly handshake and perhaps trying to think of something witty to say to break the ice you’ve shouted, “BOO!” at your reader.
3. It can come off as a bit disrespectful.
In this case I am referring to manuscripts that open right on to, say, a violent rape scene or an instance of child abuse, for example. Something innately upsetting and very real to a lot of people.
You never, ever want to give anyone the impression that you are exploiting sensitive issues in your writing simply to get a rise out of them. Bear in mind that going straight into a shocking scene can give your reader this impression. If you are doing this make sure that the shocking nature of the scene is not the reason you are placing it there.
We know the shock tactic opening line doesn’t come from a bad place. Any writer that uses it is trying to do exactly what you should be trying to do in your first line – gripping the reader. But I think they’re probably trying to grip them with the wrong thing.
Grip a reader with your characters, your storylines, your interesting view of the world, your wit, your carefully perfected firm-yet-not-too-firm handshake. Have confidence in your writing style and your ability to impress, there’s no need to rely on shock value and it’s more likely to push a reader away than pull them in anyway.
Never opt to shock for the sake of shocking. Surprise your chosen literary agent with something special and particular to your writing in your opening lines; don’t introduce them to your novel with a scare tactic.
Unless, that is, you happen to be Dawn French. Dawn French can start a book with a big ol’ swear word and people will still love her. Come to think of it, if Dawn French came up to me at a party and shouted, “BOO!” right in my face for no conceivable reason I’d still want to be her best friend. As so often is the case, it’s one rule for Dawn French and one rule for everybody else. She’s just a little bit too marvellous to hold it against her, isn’t she?
By Vicki Le Feuvre