21 June 2017

First Words

by Robert Lopresti

If you haven't read B.K. Stevens' most recent blog I recommend you do so now.  This is partly because it is very interesting and also because it inspired today's wisdom-dump.  I am referring specifically to the unfortunate remark the older policeman makes to the returning homeowner.

It reminded me of this scene from the classic police sitcom Barney Miller.  You want the bit that begins around 2:20.

I think it was after seeing that show that my wife and I formulated what I think of as the First Words Rule.  It states when you have to tell a friend or loved one about a bad situation that has just occurred (a car accident, a house fire, the atomic defibulator crushing the emoluments boot) the first words out of your mouth should be: Everybody's okay.  Assuming that is true, of course

Now, how does that relate to writing?  (This is a blog about writing and reading and crime, remember?)

Glad you asked.  We are looking at the difference between telling a story and telling the news.  It is natural for a storyteller to want to build up suspense, or to tell things in chronological order.  But the journalist knows that it is bad form to "bury the lede."  If you are reporting on a city council meeting and one of the members accidentally drops a bloody axe out of her purse, that's probably where you begin your piece, even if it didn't happen until New Business, way at the end of the evening.

Of course, years later when you are telling your grandchildren about your career you might want to build slowly up to the axe-drop.  But that's story-telling, not journalism.

These days fiction writers usually begin in the middle of the story, not with the journalistic lede, but as far in as they think they can go without baffling the reader.  To pick one favorite at random, here is how Earl Emerson opened Fat Tuesday:

I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man.  The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.

Not the beginning of events, but not the climax either.

You can start your story or novel wherever you see fit.  But when you're telling somebody the news, start with the most important part.


  1. A good clear distinction.
    I am beginning to be bored with the current passion for beginning on a note of high drama- although I very much like the example you quote. Like anything else, whatever becomes formulaic eventually loses its impact.

  2. Yep.
    One day I arrived at work to have my secretary meet me on the stairs and the first words out of her mouth were, "Don't panic." Now, i knew right away that meant "PANIC NOW!!!" but I tried not to. "Your husband's in the burn unit at McKennan". At which point I panicked. Quietly. I handed her my syllabus to hand out to the kids and got in the car and drove to the hospital. (Husband was trying to burn documents in a burn barrel; added accelerant; the blow back got him from the neck up; badly burned at the time; God loves him, because he healed up almost perfectly.)

  3. Oh, and B.K., that's reality for you - it either is way too boring for fiction OR it's so outrageous that you have to tone it down. (I keep thinking of the SD State Representative objecting to a bill that banned sex between legislators and interns - whose name was Lust.) You can't win, so you might as well make it up!

  4. Thanks for the shout-out, Rob. I couldn't agree more with your First Words rule. My husband and I always follow that rule, partly because we both had the experience of being terrified by a woman (wonderful in many ways) who always tried to wring every possible bit of melodrama out of the stories she told by delaying the "Everybody's fine" until the very end. We're especially careful to follow that rule when we call our daughters, so much so that one of them once remarked that when we call her and begin the conversation with "There's absolutely no reason to worry," she knows bad news is coming.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>