Monday, March 26, 2012


That's Charles Portis in the photo, former newspaperman, Arkansas hermit, and author of "The Dog of the South," "Norwood," "Masters of Atlantis," and "Gringos." Yes, he also wrote "True Grit," which, despite its various film interpretations as a western, is really, at its heart, a crime novel.

In my Crime Fiction class at Rollins College, students write the first 25 pages of a crime novel, and I teach them to pay particular attention to their opening pages. Most readers these days -- and that includes agents and editors -- have really short attention spans. If you don't grab them from the get-go, then all is lost. They certainly aren't gonna hang around for more than 25 pages to see if the book gets better. Nope, everything hinges on that first page.

Each term, I share with my students the opening paragraph of "True Grit." It has everything you could possibly want in an opening paragraph: conflict, setting, a strong and compelling narrative voice, and a terse summation of what the reader should expect in the pages ahead. Here it is:

"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened."

I tell my students that if they succeed in writing an opening paragraph better than that one, they'll get an automatic "A" and don't have to attend class for the rest of the term. Hasn't happened yet, but there's always hope.

Thank you, Charles Portis.

1 comment:

Sam H. said...

Bob -- thanks for shining some much-deserved light on one of my favorite unsung authors. wish he would come out with a new one.