Tantalizing Tasters and Sizzling Starts


A writer friend commented apropos the current demand for a fast start and quick moving action how, ‘These days we’re all expected to write penny dreadfuls.’

I know what he means.41ZYpCCMnoL._AA160_

Those Sizzling Starts, those Tantalizing Tasters, are surely far worse than the endings as a source of torment to the writer. After all, they are your hook to draw the reader in.

James N Frey is as down to earth as ever on this, advising that you must start the story where the main action begins and not before (though you can have an exciting fast forward by way of allure, you must remember that the reader doesn’t know the characters yet, and won’t feel for them in their moments of crises, though hopefully s/he may be curious).

But where dos the main action begin, exactly, I have often asked stupidly? At the bus stop where Zerina thinks she sees a wolf, or when it starts to follow her home, or when she offers it a bowl of chappie, or when with a bitter howl and a flash of thunder, it turns into lean and hungry looking man who seizes her shoulders with taloned hands to say that he has watched her at the local Adopt-A-Wolf society meetings?

(Does anyone care to write then next bit? No? Whyever not?)

Thinking about all the pitfalls of those beginnings, and about the classics that I’ve read or re-read over the past year or so, naturally enough of those the original ‘penny dreadful’ comes to mind, the classic robber novel, ‘The History of Rinaldo Rinaldini, Captain of Banditti’ (1798) by Christian August Vulpius.

This surely must be one which gets right into the action at once.

This book is described on Wickipedia as: – ‘A typical “penny dreadful” of the period, it was often translated and much imitated, but unrivaled in its bad eminence.’
That’s a wonderful way of putting it.

This stirring tale begins with Rinaldo Rinaldini, with typical histrionics, lamenting his fate in becoming an outlaw to one of his fellow brigands: –

‘The boisterous winds rolled over the Appenines like the mountain waves of the ocean; and the aged oaks bowed their lofty heads to the storm; the night was dark, thick clouds concealed the moon and no cheering star twinkled in the heavens.
Altaverde: This stormy night exceeds everything that I have ever witnessed!
Rinaldo, are you not asleep?
Rinaldo: I sleep! I like such weather; it rages here and there, around us, close to us, in this breast of mine and everywhere!
Altaverde: Captain, you are no longer the man you were.
Rinaldo: ‘Tis true. Once I was an innocent boy, but now –
Altaverde: You are in love….’

This certainly is getting straight to the heart of the matter – if you’ll forgive the pun – and we are to learn that Rinaldo hopes to delude the innocent young girl he’s fallen for by hiding his outlaw status from her.Rinaldo looking posh

Incongruously, the narrative pauses immediately after this scene setting, and there follows a moral debate between Rinaldo and his follower that is probably too extended for modern taste, lasting for three pages and concerning the hero’s feeling that he can do no good even as a morally scrupulous outlaw.

This moral digression is, I am sure, unusual in a penny dreadful, though I have only read extracts of others, and was probably inserted by the author as an attempt to raise the moral tone of the novel and so give it a place amongst ‘superior’ literature. It is rather out of place at the beginning, where we are only just getting to know the hero, and would certainly have been erased by a modern (and morally oblivious) editor.

After this, the action picks up quickly, as Rinaldo hears that his men have taken some mules from a traveller on his way to a local hermitage. This turns out to be none other than the grandfather of Aurelia, the girl with whom he has fallen in love. At once, a female member of the band (it seems they did have women) confesses her former love for Rinaldo himself, advising him that he can overcome his obsession with a love object. He then pays the hermitage a visit, and when some of his men break his rules to rob the place, he saves the old man’s life and has them executed.

The ingrate won’t hear of a bandit for a son-in-law and plans to send Aurelia to a convent, so Rinaldo in turn schemes to prevent this by having his men intercept Aurelia’s carriage, but this plot fails when army troops attack and decimate his hand…All this happens within forty-eight pages, so Vulpius can certainly maintain a quick pace when he has a mind, lavishing on the reader battles, love intrigues, magical appearances, ruined castles, captive maidens and secret passages. It even features a group of rival brigands who escort about with them a group of skeletons by way of display.

I complained in a last post on satisfying and dramatically effective endings about  my disappointment with the ending of another novel – gothic but written with infinitely more skill – ‘Wuthering Heights’. It’s only fair to emphasize here how impressed I have always been – along with countless others – with the beginning, which takes us so effortlessly into the story and introduces a main character at once: –

‘I have just returned from a visit to my landlord, the solitary neighbour I shall be troubled with…
“Mr Healthcliff?” I said.
A nod was the answer…’

We are introduced at once to Heathcliff and the forbidding household of Wuthering Heights. This gothic story, then, begins as quickly as any penny dreadful, though the writing is of course, far superior, and the evocation of atmosphere, the depiction of character and conflict and the understanding of the spiritual issues involved, naturally far deeper.

‘Frankenstein’ (1817), too, starts with a very stirring scene: –

‘August 5th 17..

To Mrs Saville, England:

So strange an accident has happened to us that I cannot forebear recording, it, although it is probable that you will see me before these papers can come into your possession.
Last Monday (Julyh 31st) we were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in on the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the sea room n which she floated. The situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were encompassed round by a thick fog We accordingly lay to, hoping that some change would take place in either our situation or the weather.
About two o’ clock the mist cleared away, and we beheld in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, that seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts, when a strange sight attracted out attention and diverted our solicitude from our own situation. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north at the distance of perhaps half a mile; a being which had the shape of a man,but apparently of giant stature, sat in the sledge and guided the dogs…’

This brilliant word picture forms such a striking image that it is quite unforgettable and certainly draws the reader in at once. In another few paragraphs, we meet with the unfortunate Frankenstein too, half dead from cold, emaciated, and hunted down by his monster. Soon he begins to tell the sympathetic Captain his awful story.

The other classic novel I mentioned in my post on endings, ‘Vanity Fair’ as having an ending which I found a general let down, has one of the beginnings so beloved by Victorians, and is in fact, a classic example of ‘Tell Not Show’ where the author informs us all about the two female leads and what they are like. They are shown leaving their boarding school, where sweet-natured Amelia Sedley, who has everything that she wants in life including indulgent merchant parents and a marriage arranged with the handsome, dashing young officer George Osborn, has typically been the only girl to offer friendship to the socially inferior and rebellious Becky Sharp.

This first introduction to their background and characters ends with Becky throwing back the dictionary that has been given to her as a leaving present, and cursing the school heartily.; she also mentions Napoleon Boneparte favourably, and is altogether outrageous:

‘’Miss Rebecca, then, was not in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill deserve entirely the treatment they get…This is certain; that if the world in general neglected Miss Sharp, she was never known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody…’

This paragraph reads rather like some modern say treatise on ‘positive thinking’ and ‘the laws of attraction’, though Thackeray’s point is intended to be a conventionally religious one; he joins with Vulpius, then, in adopting a tone of moral instruction very early in the tale.

Ironically, the rebellious and outspoken Becky Sharp soon ceases to be either; she continues to be self-serving, but metamorphosis’s within a chapter or so, the hated school behind her, into an accomplished flatterer who is ‘almost always good-natured’ and never expresses an opinion that might hinder her social-climbing, admiration of Napoleon Boneparte included. She is a determined hypocrite, the sort of person who is likely to flourish in Thackeray’s world of ‘Vanity Fair’.

Of course, later on there are some very stirring chapters, including a depiction of the Battle of Waterloo. These contain some of Thackeray’s strongest writing, as against the prosy tone adopted here, besides a good deal of emotional drama.

This slow starts does make me feel a bit wistful, oddly enough,and even envious, for an age that demanded a thorough introduction to each character and situation in its ‘worthwhile’ literature (yes; I know such reading matter as was available to the majority through being read out to them by the literate, wasn’t of such a type). In search of those Tempting Tasters of beginnings, modern writers miss that opportunity to build up a convincing background over pages – now it has to be done in a few terse sentences. And as for that dreaded Tell Not Show: –

‘Zarina was a nice girl, kind-hearted and with a love of animals. She cared about the environment, had a feeling for all living things, and was involved in conservation. Since her first picture book of Little Red Riding Hood she had always worn red coats; she had one on now as she glanced at the desperate eyes of the hungry wolf…. ’

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4 thoughts on “Tantalizing Tasters and Sizzling Starts

  1. Her joy at seeing the No. 23 bus finally round into view at the bottom of the hill was tempered by the sudden awareness of eyes, avid with hunger, focussed intently on her from the shadows of the alley. The distant roar of the bus’s diesel engine labouring to overcome the steep gradient was echoed by a sinister growl from the wild beast beside her. A bright flash of lightning revealed the black wolf for an instant, only to leave her lost in the dark, momentarily blind as thunder crashed around her. With a cry she turned to flee, then screamed as arms closed around her, large muscular arms – warm, powerful and reassuringly human. ‘Zerina,’ he said, his voice deep and rumbling, the bus squealing to a shivering halt beside them. His breath was hot against her neck as he guided her on board, his grip on her shoulders unwavering and accentuated by the sharp pain of claws digging through her skin.

  2. I often struggle with the start of a story, Lucinda. As you say, where does the action really begin? Do we really need to punch the reader between the eyes at once? Isn’t it better to court him or her? Sadly, the modern world is impatient with subtlety…

  3. Thanks for commenting, Mari.I know what you mean, and the way that subtlety has gone out of fashion is disappointing. Maybe it will come into vogue again? But it’s all part of the culture of hurry…

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