Cinematic Openings

Sometimes I think I could almost write a full book about POV alone. In some ways, it’s simple, though picking what POV to use for a particular story isn’t always easy. In Spree, the novel I’m working on right now, I have two main POVs: Steve Wilson, one of the bandits who’s gallivanting across the country robbing its good citizens, and Brad Ferguson, LAPD Detective-2 (Robbery-Homicide bureau) and liaison with the FBI when it comes to bank robberies. Steve is arguably the protagonist here (I hesitate to say hero), with Brad being the other character to get the most time.

Steve is there so you’ll know what they’re doing: what stores and banks they rob and what happens along the way. The plot belongs to Steve, his partner in crime Eddie Jones, and the guy you meet about a quarter of the way through, Andrew Church. I tell a few things from Eddie and Andrew’s POVs, but mostly it’s Steve.

Brad is there to give you a more normal POV, something objective when it comes to the criminals. You get to follow along with his investigation, as well as looking over his shoulder as he and his partner, D-3 Mike Carlyle (who is also the senior partner on the team) as they investigate Steve and Eddie—without knowing who they are at first—as well as a serial thief who’s knocking over ampm stores in the LA/West LA area.

Now, here’s the thing (now that I’m through with that shameless self-promotion): deciding when to switch between POVs isn’t always easy. Steve gets most of the scenes, and I try to give you at least two solid scenes with him before I switch to Brad. At first, Brad doesn’t have as much to do with Steve and Eddie because they get out of California pretty quickly. They rob a Vons in West LA, a Motel 6 in Loma Linda, and then they’re out of the state. Brad and Mike decide they’re someone else’s problem and concentrate on the ampm robberies because BP, the parent company, is coming down on their lieutenant to do something about it.

What’s all this got to do with POV, at least this time around?

Well, I’ve talked about this before, but I grew up reading a lot of books that used the omniscient POV, and it was usually head hopping. In other words, within the same scene, the author will probably put you inside the heads of more than one of the characters involved. Used to, I didn’t bat an eye at this. It was what I was accustomed to, I was always very aware I was reading a book as opposed to, say, running up and down the dirt roads of my youth, and so it didn’t bother me. This POV is very common in sf/f, as well as horror, my main staples while growing up. Louis L’Amour was an exception to this as many of his books are first person.

You don’t see that kind of thing much anymore. Stephen King does it, and I’m reading the latest book by Robert McCammon and he does it, too. They’re both old-school authors as well as being well-established enough to get away with it. For us budding (read unpublished) authors, it’s not supposed to be a good idea to use head hopping or omniscient POVs.

But, see, I also watch movies. Quite a few, at times. And there’s something movies use that I think can be very effective. It’s called the establishing shot. It’s the one you see at the beginning. Usually it starts as an overhead crane shot. It shows you, for example, a building in New York City, maybe the Daily Bugle. Once we’ve had a chance to see that, the camera zooms in. Maybe it zooms in on a window, where the highly type-A J. Jonah Jameson is dressing down some poor reporter—probably Peter Parker—for expecting to actually get paid for his work. This all lets us know where we’re at, and then we finally get to see what’s going on in Jameson’s office.

This is a pretty broad example, but you get the idea. Even if you don’t know the technical term for it, you recognize an establishing shot. It’s one of those universal things, an unspoken cue that the camera is taking you from wherever you’re sitting into the world of the movie, and this is the part of that world we’re about to visit. You’ll see it dozens of times in a move, maybe more.

There’s something sorta like it in writing, or at least there used to be. Some genres still keep it. Mysteries come immediately to mine, especially if they use the classic formula of letting you see the crime being committed before we go to our intrepid hero. I’m not sure what you’d call this, but let’s stick with the lingo and call it an establishing shot.

Because I watch movies and it’s so ingrained in me, I often initially imagine my novels opening with establishing shots, and I have to find a way around them in order to avoid the dreaded omniscient feel they have. But I chose not to avoid it in the opening scene of Spree because I want to establish what our characters are doing quickly and with a minimum of fuss. I want the reader to wonder why they’re doing it, and I don’t go too long from this POV. Here it is:

Here’s how it went down:

Eddie came wheeling the dark green ’75 Impala into the Vons parking lot at what the cops would call an excessive rate of speed. The car listed to the right like a sailboat under a heavy crosswind, leaving behind black marks on the pavement and blue smoke in the air. He missed a stray shopping cart by like six inches. On purpose. If it had been in the way, he’da probably hit it to teach the cart herder a lesson.

He sped up an aisle toward the front doors, both hands on the wheel, eyes on his destination. He drove like he had a purpose, ’cause he did. When he hit the aisle that ran in front of the store, he whipped the car to the left and slid perfectly into place about ten feet from the front door.

Primo driving, dude.

The car rocked to a stop just as Steve came through the automatic doors so fast he had to turn sideways, his hands full of cash. Eddie leaned over and threw the passenger door open. Steve dove in.

He’d barely hit the seat before Eddie stomped the gas pedal and peeled out, adding some more burnt rubber to the pavement and smoke to the air, and left the parking lot the way he came in: at an excessive rate of speed. He took off so fast the door slammed shut on its own.

He kept the pedal to the metal for two blocks, to make it look good, then slowed to just under speed limit and took a right at the next street. Cops don’t look for civilians driving speed limit. They look for bad guys speeding away from the scene. Bad guys stay free longer if they just observe a few simple rules. Those rules boiled down to: don’t look guilty.

Half an hour later and miles away from the West LA Vons, Eddie turned into an alley so narrow the old Impala barely fit. He cruised down the alley and turned left into a small parking lot.

Time to change rides.

They wiped the car down, removed the plates, and walked away. Steve carried the money in a backpack, and since it was only 8:30 p.m., it didn’t look out of place for a couple guys to be walking down the street. Even here.

Two blocks from the abandoned Impala, they entered an Albertsons lot and got in a white ’76 Cutlass S. Like the Impala, the car didn’t look like much, but when Eddie turned the key, the engine fired up without a hitch. He drove through the surface streets for maybe fifteen minutes, then hit an onramp for I-10.

Eddie Jones and Steve Wilson. Eastbound and down.

That’s the opening, and it’s arguably omniscient, though a lot of it seems to be from Eddie’s POV. It’s fairly brief, and it never happens that way again. I did it to quickly establish Eddie and Steve’s MO. After that last sentence, I jump into Steve’s head for the next several pages.

I have a feeling that I’ll be chided when I read this in my writing group (which may not be for some time yet). This is first draft, unedited, so it probably deserves some chiding, and I won’t argue with it. What looks good and perfectly understandable to the author is sometimes as clear as mud for the reader—and it’s rarely the reader’s fault. But I’ll probably get more chiding because of the POV.

I have a version where I tell it strictly from Eddie’s POV (Spree has gone through a couple of versions before I finally settled on just adding Andrew at a later point in the original version), but, to me, it doesn’t have that sense of movement that this one does. More importantly, it doesn’t sum everything up so neatly. I’m showing you, from something of a bird’s eye view, what Steve and Eddie do. There’s no question what kind of guys we’re dealing with after you read this scene. And, unless it comes down to this being the only thing that keeps a publisher from putting out my book, I’ll probably stick to my guns and keep this opening as is. I think the first sentence is a good hook (“Here’s how what went down?” the reader asks when he sees it), and I’m showing the reader something without doing a lot of infodump. There is a short flashback later, in which we learn what spurred these two to do this, and I do it early to get it the hell out of the way.

Should this be done very often? No. Not these days. According to what we hear at the conventions and writing groups, this kind of thing just isn’t done anymore, just like you don’t spend pages and pages describing a house down to every friggin’ nail, like Hawthorne does in the opening of The House of Seven Gables.

But I would argue that it’s okay to use it occasionally. Writers are expected to break the rules. But they’re expected to know them before they break them, and when they do, there should be a very good reason for it. It should contribute to the story. I believe this one does, and yes, I supposed I’m biased, but who ain’t when it comes to their own work? We can and do view it objectively, but we can never be completely objective anymore than a parent can do it with their kids. That’s just life.

I’ve given you the reasons why I believe, in this case, opening this way is okay. But, I’ll condescend to admit I might be wrong (you’ll notice my tongue is firmly in my cheek on that one), so if you have a differing opinion, let me know. I like this beginning, but there’s a very good chance it could be done better. If you think you have a suggestion, I’m all ears.




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