Opening Images: The Woman in Black

I love a great opening image.


As with so many aspects of story composition, creating that great opening image is a balancing act – but then, who wants an easy task? We’re in it for the challenge, right? An opening image roots us in time and place, and a clever one will strap us into the scene by all five senses.  More than that, if you can also find a detail that resonates with your particular audience, you’ll have happy readers on your hands.

Susan Hill’s ghost stories are superbly crafted.  “Queen of the traditional ghost story”,  The Times review reads on the cover of her collection, The Woman in Black and other Ghost Stories.  She had me at paragraph one, of course.

“It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve.  As I crossed the long entrance hall of Monk’s Piece on my way from the dining room, where we had just enjoyed the first of the happy, festive meals, towards the drawing room and the fire around which my family were now assembled, I paused and then, as I often do in the course of an evening, went to the front door, opened it, and stepped outside.”

Here, abetted by her excellent title, we have all the senses engaged in what feels like a Dickensian-level holiday.  But while the narrator has Christmas wrapped around him, inside his heart is cold with fear.

I admire the way she uses the resonance of shared experience and then its opposition to set me up for fear, uplift, and despair.

More of her opening images from the collection:

“An autumn night and the fens stretch for miles, open and still.”  Dolly. 

“It was a little before nine o’clock, the sun was setting into a bank of smoky violet cloud, and I had lost my way.”  The Small Hand.

Dear me, I’m just beginning The Small Hand.  Eyes wide open.  Not too close to bedtime.

The Woman in Black and other Ghost Stories by Susan Hill.


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