Begin With A Bang

By James Scott Bell

My son was assigned his first Dickens novel in middle school. He got A Tale of Two Cities and dutifully set out to begin.

Twenty minutes later he came out of his room with a bemused and somewhat frustrated look. "So how do you like Dickens?" I asked.

"I don't know," he replied. "I don't get what's going on.There's this coach with mail going up this hill and..." He shook his head.


"Well, why does he do all this description of one thing? I mean, a whole chapter on this coach!"

"You've got to understand something about when Dickens was writing. They didn't have radio, TV or movies. Novelists in those days had to spend a lot of time describing the scene, so readers could see it in their heads. People weren't as well traveled, either, so anything outside their world also had to be described in detail."

Nathaniel nodded, as if I had made sense. I thanked God for a small victory.

"Today," I continued, "readers don't need that level of description. They want to get into the action right away, see something happen. So even though A Tale of Two Cities has one of the most famous openings of all time, it probably wouldn't fly today."

And that's true. I can just see some modern editor, having a chat with Dickens about his new manuscript, sitting the author down in a chair and slowly shaking his head.

"Chuck, you write like an angel, but what's all this 'Best of times, worst of times' stuff, huh? I mean, your whole first chapter reads like some history lesson here. Chuck, baby, listen to me. You got some guy, Joe Bagodonuts, coming into Barnes & Noble after work. He's looking for some exciting book to read, he sees a fun cover with a guillotine on it, he picks up and starts looking at Chapter One. You think he's gonna want to read on after all this king of this, king of that business? Chuck, it's got to go..."

I advised my son to allow the wonderful words of Dickens to wash over him, and that he has to read those books with a different mindset (he ended up loving the book). But today, things have to move. Fast.

The rule I give my writing students is this: Act first, explain later. Begin with a character in action and conflict. You don't have to give a lot of information up front. Readers will stay with a character in action and conflict for a good long time. Read the openings of any Dean Koontz novel. You'll see what I mean.

James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film in college, acted in off-Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree, with honors, from the University of Southern California. A former trial lawyer, Bell is the Christy Award winning author of Deadlock, Breach of Promise and The Trials of Kit Shannon series which includes A Greater Glory, A Higher Justice and A Certain Truth. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Cindy, and their two children. You can learn more at his website:

© 2004 James Scott Bell. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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