Inasmuch as the scene of this story is that historic pile, Belpher Castle, in the county of Hampshire, it would be an agreeable task to open it with a leisurely description of the place, followed by some notes on the history of the Earls of Marshmoreton, who have owned it since the fifteenth century.Immediately I closed the book. A leisurely description of the place! With notes on the history of some earls! Nooooo! I remarked to my mother that this opening line was very off-putting, and the reply was that I obviously didn't know good literature. Well, that's BS--and opening with that kind of malarkey is no way to begin a novel and pull in a reader. That's pretty clear.
But neither I, nor my mother or stepfather, knew that the rest of the passage actually negates that first line, and the story does open with some action rather than the dreaded "leisurely description." Such is Wodehouse's wit that he continues,
Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jackrabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.
Exactly. (And how much do you love the term "picture palace"? I'm guessing that means movie theatre.)
If you've ever read Les Edgarton's book Hooked, which is about how to write catchy fiction today, then you know Les suggests the very same thing--that you must "get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jackrabbit surprised while lunching."
Note that PG Wodehouse makes this clear, but then takes his time getting to his action by dint of this kind of opening. You might wonder what the point is in noting that his readers need action or else they'll throw him aside (as I did) and go out to picture palaces, when in fact by mentioning it, he slowed down the story. Since Wodehouse was no dummy, my guess is that he knew that readers, while wanting action off the bat, don't want explosive action.
That is, we want to be drawn in. We want some setup. In Save the Cat, author Blake Snyder says we need an opening image and a setup before the catalyst. We need a little time to become acclimated in the new world before the explosion occurs.
That said, the action should still be clear. The jackrabbit should still be off and running. It just shouldn't be exploding right yet.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you want some setup in your openings when your read--or do you want your catalyst right up front? How do you write them? Any examples?
And by the way, I'm totally going to read the rest of A Damsel in Distress. Update: for those of you who have Kindles, A Damsel in Distress is free. Yes. Check it.