How to Write Killer Prose (1)
You have an idea. Not necessarily for a novel, but for... something. You've thought about it, slept on it, tentatively named a character or two, and you haven't woken up one morning in a cold sweat, suddenly appalled by the whole notion. You think your idea may be real, rather than ghostly and evanescent.
For me, this initial stage can take months or years. It ticks away in the background while I'm writing other stuff, and when I come back, things have often moved on in useful ways. It's a bit like peripheral vision. Don't try to solve issues (plot, character development etc) by staring straight at them. Glance obliquely, look away. Let your subconscious do the work.
Luke here. To support my work, and to get future instalments of How To Write Killer Prose please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
You've decided to commit, to start writing. No rules here. Are you a risk-taker, a seat-of-the-pants type prepared to follow wherever inspiration leads? Do you need a roadmap, and if so, how detailed do you need it to be? A back-of-the-napkin sketch or a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown?
Personally, I like to know where I'm starting and ending. I want the broad beats. But the detailed synopsis approach kills it for me. I can't crank plot out of nowhere. When I started work on the Killing Eve books it was with a single, very specific image in my head. It's morning, and an unnamed young woman in a summer dress is striding through a sunlit square. Pigeons rise up around her in a flurry of wingbeats. She's carefree and insouciant, but we know that, just hours earlier, she committed an act of horrifying violence.
I didn't know how my first chapter would begin, but I knew that this was how it ended. And so the first words I wrote were the chapter's closing paragraph:
'For a moment, in the sun-dazed street, time stands still. Then as the pigeons circle the square, the young woman continues on her way, long limbs swinging, and is lost in the throng.'
At that stage, I didn't know where in the world we were, and I didn't know what my protagonist had done. In the event the sequence (in which Villanelle murders Salvatore Greco by stabbing him through the eye), takes place in Palermo. But it was the image of this blithe young woman, apparently without a care in the world, which would inform everything that followed. It's echoed in the first episode of the TV series, when Jodie Comer's Villanelle, free as a bird in her Miu Miu frock, is sauntering through the Palais-Royal gardens in Paris.
My personal experience is that the best plot turns reveal themselves to you along the way. I'm a back-of-the-napkin guy. With other writers it's whiteboards, sharpies and Post-it notes. There's no right way, just as there's no right time to start writing. Like cats circling before settling in a chair, we all have our rituals. Let's look at first lines.
These are important. They're the threshold to your world. They have weight to carry. And if they don't entirely answer the reader's first question - what kind of a book is this? - they should at least provide a clue, and maybe even foreshadow later events.
Here's a suggestion. Don't make your first line the first thing you write. Start a few paragraphs down, get into your stride, and come back to the opening later. Also, don't sweat it. An overworked opening is the literary equivalent of a damp handshake, while a really good one will often slip past unnoticed. Here are some favourites of mine.
'The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.' (Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming)
'The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.' (The Secret History, by Donna Tartt)
'Here they come, marching into American sunlight.' (Mao II, by Don DeLillo)
'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenburgs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.' (The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath)
That last example, the Plath, particularly haunts me. Plath was a poet, and while this sentence is almost conversational, every word is chosen with precision. What can we learn from an opening like this?
The first impression is atmospheric. You sense the torpor, the non-specific unease. And then those six shocking words, as if lethal electricity has been drawn from the air of the city itself.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were Soviet spies, executed in June 1953 at Sing-Sing prison, New York. The case excited world-wide controversy, with many claiming that the couple were victims of the Cold War paranoia sweeping the USA at the time.
Electricity has a triple resonance here. We sense it in the charged city air, and we see it harnessed to kill the Rosebergs. But Plath's reference is also personal, a foreshadowing of the Electro-Convulsive Therapy that she herself would undergo (and fictionalise in the Bell Jar) to treat her own feelings of fear and panic. In the space of a single sentence, she captures the traumatised spirit of an era, and locates it precisely within her narrator.
So where does this leave us ordinary Joes and Janes? For me the lesson of Plath's and the other openings I've cited is to be bold. To cut our sentences to the bone, and trust to the power of words to do the rest. Don't over-write, don't over-describe. Give your readers just enough to work with, and let them do the imagining. We'll look more closely at how to do this next time. Until then!
Fun fact: Donna Tartt used to be a cheerleader.