Info-dumps and the Evolution of Opening Paragraphs

Opening paragraphs are tough to write. Everyone knows that. You’ve got to introduce your character, draw the readers into the story, foreshadow the plot, and establish the point of view. You also have to orient your readers, so it helps to answer as many of the who, what, when, and where questions as you can. Even more challenging, this is your first and best chance to capture your readers. The best openings grab them by the throat and make them continue reading.

I thought it might be helpful to show the evolution of the opening paragraphs to a short story I’ve been working on the last couple of weeks.

Here’s my first attempt.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. He checked his mobile phone. No signal. Awesome.

My usual technique, in evidence here, is to first and foremost draw the readers into the head of the point-of-view character. I almost always start by naming the character, and then go on to have some visceral reaction to the physical surroundings. In this case, he shivers and his shirt clings to his clammy torso. With any luck, the reader is now in his head, so whatever follows is also in his head. I also locate him in space (in a diner in Oklahoma) and time (it’s July). In fact, the diner is old, since it has “ancient” scents. We also learn he’s in a remote location, since there’s no cell signal. Finally, the name of the diner–The Last Chance–adds a bit of foreboding and foreshadowing.

All in all, this doesn’t look like a terrible opening to me. It didn’t quite work for the story, though, since I didn’t think it had enough information. Basically, this is your typical “guy gets lost in the middle of nowhere and weird things happen” story–the kind you would see on an old Twilight Zone episode, for example. So, I decided I needed to add a bit of that to the opening, along with an explanation of why he was there. So, here’s my second attempt at an opening paragraph.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he pulled out his mobile phone to call the office, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. After his last sales stop, he’d gotten lost in the scrub oak forest and twisty gravel roads, and he was overdue. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this place, such as it was. The town consisted of a church, a dozen boarded-up houses, and this diner. 

Now if the waitress would take his order, he could eat and be on his way.

Notice this adds that he’s lost and paints a picture of a ghost town buried in the forest. There’s also a bit of tension since the waitress seems to be ignoring him. While that was better, the first paragraph now drags a bit with too much explanation, so I decided to insert another paragraph with even more explanation, some of it to set up things later in the story.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he pulled out his mobile phone to call the office, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. After his last sales stop, he’d gotten lost in the scrub oak forest and twisty gravel roads, and his report was overdue.

This trip had been a total waste. After all the quakes last year, you’d think wireless seismic monitors would sell like iPhones in Silicon Valley in these parts, but no one here had any money, and most of the time there was no network for the monitors to connect to. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this place, such as it was. The town consisted of a church, a dozen boarded-up houses, and this diner.

Now if the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way.

Well. Harumph. That needs work. Look at the last sentence in the first paragraph. It’s all telling: an info-dump. Same for the second paragraph. How embarrassing. So, let’s work on that.

Hank shivered in the dark and dank air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he checked his mobile phone, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. Here he was, lost in Hicksville, or Carl’s Corner, or whatever they called this nowhere town, buried inside a nowhere scrub forest, with twisty gravel roads that led to nowhere, and now he couldn’t even make a friggin’ phone call. 

On top of all that, this sales trip had been a total waste. With all the quakes last year, you’d think wireless seismic monitors would sell around here like prayer books at a revival, but no one had any money, and these backwoods bumpkins didn’t even have cell phone coverage. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this diner, such as it was. At least the GPS in his car told him it was only a few miles back to the turnpike.

If the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way back to civilization.

All right, then. This is better. Now the information at the end of the first paragraph is clearly in Hank’s head, and we’re getting a sense of his frustration and isolation from what he’s thinking. I like the first paragraph at this point.

The second paragraph? Well, it’s still got too much information. It sounds like earthquakes and seismic monitors are important to the story, and they’re not. What is important is the feeling he’s “dropped into another century” and he wants to get “back to civilization,” added in the final paragraph.

So, here’s where the opening stands now.

Hank shivered in the dark and dank air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he checked his mobile phone, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. Here he was, lost in Hicksville, or Carl’s Corner, or whatever they called this nowhere town, buried inside nowhere scrub forest, with twisty gravel roads that led to nowhere, and now he couldn’t even make a friggin’ phone call. 

On top of all that, this sales trip had been a total waste. The few bumpkins who’d listened to his pitch didn’t have the brains to pound dirt, and no money besides. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find a place to eat. At least the GPS in his car told him it was only a few miles back to the turnpike.

If the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way back to civilization.

At 190 words, that’s still a little long. The precipitating incident, the arrival a mysterious stranger at diner, starts in the next paragraph. It’d be better if I could push that earlier, so this probably still needs some work.

The point is that openings are hard. The story stands at 2800 words right now, and I’m happy with everything except the first 200 of them.

I’ll keep you posted!

Next day thoughts:

I’ve decided to delete the entire second paragraph.  The only essential information is that he can use his GPS to guide him to the nearby turnpike, and I moved that tidbit to later in the story.  Now I can have the precipitating incident right there at the beginning.

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