Compelling Openings: A How To

by | March 22, 2019 |

A beginning writer recently asked me how to create compelling openings, thus prompting this blog.

I have chosen to explain what I did to write Chapter One of John Carter’s Conundrum. I chose it because my editor noted at the end of the first chapter: “You’re writing to all your strengths here.”

So, now I need to figure out what those strengths are.

I’ve included the whole chapter, which has two scenes. I will break them down and comment on them using italics.

Note: This is an unusually long blog.

Compelling Openings: Setting the Scene

Chapter One

London, 1770

When John Carter stepped into the darkened room, the depressing scent of dust and bodily decay assailed his nostrils. He inhaled and caught a welcome waft of camphor. Though cloying, the laurel wood oil made the air marginally more breathable.

“Close the door behind you!” croaked a thin voice from the depths of the gloom. “The drafts are going to be the death of me.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” Carter replied mildly and did as he was told.

“Hah!” rasped the voice. “I’m dying anyway. Now sit down!”

Thoughts of death had crossed Carter’s mind when he had received, earlier in the day, a summons to the magnificent home of Lord Avery, Third Duke of Bradford, on Portman Square. He had become sure of the deathbed scene awaiting him when, upon being ushered into the foyer, the senescent butler had not led him to a receiving room on the ground floor but rather up the grand staircase to the family quarters.

His eyes, adjusting to the candlelit dimness, observed the man shrunk to child-like proportions in the capacious bed on the far side of the room. The body tucked below the covers was frail. The arms, crossed atop the covers, resembled plucked chicken wings. The head, well on its path to skull, sprouted the last wisps of white wiry hair, eyes and cheeks sunken, the whole covered by skin paper-thin.

“No, not that chair,” the duke snapped when Carter moved to seat himself at a respectful distance. “This one, next to me.”

“Yes, Your Grace, certainly,” he said, still in mild tones.

“There, that’s right. I want to see you. Not that there’s anything wrong with my eyesight. Or my hearing! It’s rather my heart.”

“I didn’t know.”

“You wouldn’t have,” the duke grumbled, adding with admirable spirit, “And now you do!”

“I’m sorry.”

“It happens to everyone,” the old man said with an indifferent shrug, but a candle flame caught an errant glint in his eye when he noted, “There’s something to be said for knowing a man is going to meet his Maker. It’s …” he trailed off then coughed. “Well, it puts a man in a frame of mind to do whatever he wants.”

The first three sentences set the scene. After a quick exchange of dialogue, the deathbed scene is further described with seven more sentences. The dialogue keeps the story moving forward. 

Compelling Openings: Establishing Character

Carter blinked and ventured, “And what you wanted was to see me?”

“Silly question, lad,” the duke snapped. “The obvious answer is Yes.”

Carter was not offended. He was rather touched to be reduced to a lad and transported back to his youth in Hartsfield.

The duke lifted himself a fraction off the thick clouds of pillows and glared at his visitor for several moments before his torso caved back onto his props. He asked, sharply, “When was the last time I laid eyes on you, boy?”

“A good fifteen years ago, I’d say. Twenty-one I must have been, Your Grace.”

The old man nodded then commented, “Developed into quite the figure of a man, I see. ‘Braw’ your countrymen would say.”

“I’ve heard such applied to myself, yes.”

The duke squinted at his guest. “And not bad looking, if I’m any judge of the matter. Not a pretty boy, either.”

Carter cast about for a reply and settled on, “Thank you, Your Grace.”

The duke’s brows lowered and met to form a white chevron. “But I’m not any judge of the matter. What say the ladies?”

Carter was not sure of the purpose of this line of questioning so he kept to the demure reply, “Do you remember the Bellows family? I married Mary Bellows, Your Grace. She left this world twelve years ago already.”

The duke nodded. “I remember. And since her passing? No current marriage prospects?”

“I’ve devoted myself to our son, Thomas, and my career.”

At this the duke perked up a bit. “I understand you’ve done well for yourself, lad.”

“Well enough.”

The duke’s laugh was a ghostly rattle. “Modest as ever! I’ve made inquiries into you, I have.” He paused, as if for dramatic effect. “John Carter, a Bow Street runner! A simple boy from the countryside made good in Town.”

Carter accepted the praise and forbore to feel the grudge usually engendered when a townsperson attached the derogatory term ‘runner’ to his profession. “I had the help of some luck.”

“And a good deal of skill. It’s all in the reports I’ve had! You seem to have a knack for solving crimes, like the one that brought you to the attention of Sir John Fielding, the Bow Street Magistrate.”

“I like to follow evidence, Your Grace. It’s satisfying to bring perpetrators to justice.”

Through the duke’s questions the character and background of John Carter is revealed in a natural way. We know a lot about the main character quickly.

Compelling Openings: A Twist

Carter was about to ask, cautiously, whether his grace now needed his services to bring to justice someone who had perpetrated a crime against the Avery family or the Bradford estate. However, before he could formulate a suitably tactful way to ask the question, the duke said,

“I’m sure your father is proud of you.”

“I hope he is, Your Grace.”

“And how is his health?”

“He’s well, Your Grace.”

“Good man, your father. At home is he?”

“With my mother in Hartsfield, yes, Your Grace.”

The old man’s voice was wistful. “I wish I could see it one last time.”

“I’m sure you do. I go there as often as I can and send Thomas there even more often, especially now, during the summer.” Carter saw the old man’s gaze had traveled out to an invisible horizon and so turned away from his own personal interests and toward his host’s. “Your land is in good heart, Your Grace.”

His grace grunted. “My son has been doing a good job of it, just as I expected.” Despite the compliment, the old man did not sound happy about it. “Bit of a dull stick, Edward is. Oh, stubble it, he’s more than a bit of a dull stick. He’s a dead bore, and his wife is nigh near insufferable.”

Growing up in the shadow of Bradford Manor, where the country grapevine was well rooted and luxuriously branching, Carter was aware that the Third Duke and the future Fourth Duke did not enjoy a comfortable relationship. Where the friction arose, no one could say for sure, although various theories – most entirely fanciful – circulated freely.

“Bah! I didn’t bring you here to talk about him.”

Carter was increasingly curious to learn the reason for this visit but held his tongue. He would pay his grace courtesy under any circumstances. Under these he wished to give the dying man the freedom to do whatever he wanted, as the duke had just said. Because Carter would have imagined his grace had done whatever he wanted his entire life – such was a duke’s privilege – he was not sure what further liberties the deathbed afforded. With no mariner’s star to guide him, Carter interpreted his role to be an attentive first mate on the duke’s final journey out to sea.

Silence fell. A candle guttered. Muted sounds of household activity drifted up. In the street below a carriage rumbled over the cobblestone, horses’ hooves clopped. A gurgling sound guttered in the duke’s throat.

John Carter naturally wonders why he was called to the duke’s deathbed. Whatever his expectations might have been, they are not being immediately met.

Compelling Openings: A Puzzle Presents Itself

He cleared it and began to ramble incoherently in disjointed sentences and eventually trailed off. At one point he sat up straight in bed and uttered, “The locket! My beautiful Clara!” only to subside again and fall into a coughing fit. He rambled a bit more then said, as if in conclusion, “So, you see, it had been a long time, lad, a very long time.” He closed his eyes. A faint smile curved his wizened lips. “But I found a way. I did. I don’t think I was wrong, either. A debt settled. You scratch my back … and so forth.” He paused then added, wryly, “No real scratching, of course. Wasn’t up to it! Still, did them a good turn, I think.” He paused again then said with satisfaction. “Yes, a good turn.”

Although this last bit seemed more lucid than his initial ramblings, the whole still made no sense to Carter. However, he knew not to ask for clarification. The duke was deep inside his memories and simply wanted to revisit them. As he spoke his already weak voice dropped to a murmur. Although he had seemed mentally sharp enough despite his physical frailties, Carter began to suspect the duke was experiencing confusion. His suspicion was reinforced when the duke sat up abruptly and said,

“I mustn’t forget to tell you. The first password is Paris, the second is lavender, the room is rose, and the answer to the question of your purpose is ‘None of your business’.” He peered at his visitor. “Do you understand?”

Carter didn’t but guessed what was required of him. He repeated dutifully, “The passwords are Paris and lavender. The room is rose, and I will have an easy time remembering ‘None of your business’.”

“Oh, and you need knock only once, then enter,” the duke added.

“I will do that, Your Grace,” Carter assured him.

“Carry it through, lad. Promise me.”

As a matter of course he said, “I promise.”

The old man fell back again and approved, “Good lad.” A moment later a troubled look furrowed his brow and his body twitched.

In some concern, Carter asked, “Are you all right, Your Grace?”

“There’s more to tell you,” the old man replied. “I’m sure there is, even quite a bit, but I can’t remember it just now.”

“You’ll let me know when it comes to you.”

Mental clarity briefly lit the old man’s eyes. He said in relief, “Ah, I’ve already mentioned it. Thank goodness. The letter. I’m sure I sent it.” He wheezed, “Almost.”

John Carter can have no idea what the duke’s ramblings are about. All he can do at this point is listen.

Compelling Openings: Ending A Scene

Then he sank again into reminiscence. At first Carter did not know the people or the events the duke referred to, but the longer the old man spoke, the farther he sailed into his early life, as if crossing toward the far shore doubled as a journey backward in time. Suddenly Carter recognized the places the duke was describing, the town of Brad’s Ford, the paths, the hamlets surrounding Bradford Manor, one of which was Hartsfield. He spoke of the delights of playing at the mill when he was a boy, some seventy years before it must have been, how the miller patiently showed him the workings of the gears and the waterwheel and cautioned him to keep his fingers clear of the millstone, how the miller’s wife fed him unforgettably fresh bread made in the afternoon from wheat ground that morning.

He spoke of spring thaws and rolling meadows, fertile fields, wildflowers in summer, fall harvests and festivals held outdoors when a pleasant nip caught the air, first snow falls and blankets of white shrouding the hills and dales, keeping them safe while they slept. In the thin thread of the voice Carter heard tones of deep love.

At length the duke stopped then said on a sigh, “Surrey.” To the ceiling he said, “It’s beautiful country, God’s country.”

“It is, Your Grace,” Carter responded almost involuntary, moved by the duke’s descriptions. He was profoundly happy Thomas was there now reveling in the bounties of the countryside in the care of his nanny and granddad.

Abruptly the mood in the room shifted. The duke returned to the present and made a noise of profound disgust – whether in reference to his sentimental memories or his withered condition or both.

“Enough,” he said in a firmer voice then pointed toward the bedside table. “This is for you. There’s a good lad. That’s all.”

Carter looked as directed and was surprised to see a thick envelope addressed to Mister John Carter. He hesitated only momentarily. The duke clearly wanted him to have whatever was in the envelope and had called him to his bedside to give it to him. He rose, picked up the envelope and slid it into his inside jacket pocket. He had the odd premonition the envelope held a deed, perhaps to a parcel of land in Surrey.

“Thank you,” Carter said then added, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

The duke waved a hand dismissively.

“Then I’ll bid you Good Evening, Your Grace.”

The duke grunted. “More like Adieu.”

Carter nodded and crossed the room but paused at the door. He turned back to his unexpected benefactor (if benefactor he was) and ventured, “You were about to say something about this moment of yours, the one all of us pass through. You began, ‘It’s….’ How did you mean to finish that thought?” He prompted, “It’s ….?”

“The moment when character counts and class doesn’t.”


This is the end of the first scene of Chapter One. The duke finishing a thought he didn’t complete on Page One gives shape to the scene. At the end of it, the reader knows the duke has high regard for John Carter, although the reasons aren’t spelled out. Neither the reader nor John Carter knows yet what’s in the envelope. 

Now on to the second scene of Chapter One.

Compelling Openings: The Conundrum is Launched

Six days later in the London Times Carter spied the sober black border surrounding the obituary of the Third Duke of Bradford. The funeral was to be at St. Mary the Virgin in Mortlake, which he knew to be on the south bank of the Thames between Kew and Barnes. It was a part of Surrey at the southwestern edge of the city bursting at its seams and likely the established place where the Averys had buried their dead long before they came into the dukedom.

Carter dressed in his navy frock coat and knee breeches, which were not silk but cotton, as were his stockings. He took simple pride in his shirt and stock of lawn, even though he did not intend to be seen. He arrived at the church just as the service was underway and stayed outside, wishing to be present but thinking it unseemly to formally attend. When the mourners crowded into the cemetery on the side yard, he kept out of sight and only went to pay his respects graveside after all the mourners had left and the sexton had finished his job.

Hat in hand, he bowed his head and said a silent prayer for the duke’s spirit. Aloud he said, “It’s a bit of a mystery you’ve given me, Your Grace. Two of them, in fact! I didn’t want to move forward on what may be the solutions until you had departed. So I’m here to tell you that this evening I’ll go to Mayfair to test my first theory, and if I’m right I’ll go from there.”

He twirled the inside rim of his hat several times around his index finger before he said, “I did suspect you’d bequeathed me a deed, but I had not imagined it would be to a townhouse on Bedford Square in Bloomsbury. I’ve gone by the neighborhood now and seen an older woman living there, but I’m sure you know that. You likely even know her – or of her. How and why I’m involved is a puzzle you’ve given me. When I discover the solution I’ll let you know.” He added with confidence in his skills, “I’ll carry it through, Your Grace, as promised.”

John Carter has made a death-bed promise to the duke to “Carry it through.” The conundrum is: Carry what through, exactly?

It is to be hoped that the reader is both curious enough about the conundrum and compelled enough by John Carter’s affable, unflappable personality to wish to join him on his journey of discovery.

Think of this blog as a case study of the points I make in: 

Where to Start Your Story

For my complete guide to writing a book, you can visit my writing resource page.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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