Monday, January 10, 2011

Technical Topics -- Five Pointers on Openings

Someone asked:
What should I do?  I'm sixteen.  All my openings are lame.

Whether you start writing at sixteen or sixty, the mantra is:  The first million words are for practice.

You are not unique in having trouble with openings.  It is technically difficult to write the start of a story.

The very first page of a book has to strong-arm the reader away from the checkout line at the drugstore or the kitchen table at home over a bowl of oatmeal
and into your story.

You have to make the reader care about the character before she knows much about him.
Grabbing the reader is never about something the reader knows.  It's always about how she feels.

But -- talking information here -- you also got to get across where everybody is and why,
and what it looks like,
and what's gone on,
and what just happened,
so the reader doesn't feel all-at-sea.

That's just in the first couple paragraphs.

So beginnings tend to give a writer the pip.
Even if she is not 16.

General advice
(and what is an army of suggestions without a general?)

1)  Hit the ground running.

This is sometimes expressed as 'start in the middle of action'.
But what it boils down to is -- something interesting is going on.

Not so much, Grandpa lost the ranch fifty years ago.
And more, signing the mortgage that buys the ranch at great financial risk.

Not so much, the airport and talking about take-off and checking through baggage.
But more, the protagonist, 30,000 feet over Cleveland, noticing that the cabin crew are all giant penguins.
With teeth.

2) Reveal character.

Many people believe, (well, I do,) that stories grow out of character.

So one purpose of the first scene is to reveal character.  We disclose the inner heart of our protagonist with action.

So, not so much folks explaining the protag's problems.
And more, noting that our heroine is up to her knees in dragon guts and wiping the ichor off her blade and shuddering  but even so she steps over the still-twitching dragon and heads inside the cave.

3)  Something is about to happen.

It's not just that Penelope has slain a large reptile.  It's what awaits her in the cave. 

It's not that Mary stands in the lunchline, swiping change from the backpack in front of her.  It's Gregory, turning around, catching her with her hand on his wallet.


4)  Leave questions.

Don't tell the reader all the 'why'.
Make the reader ask . . .  'why'?

5)  Keep it short

Here, if ever, be concise.  Stick to the point.  The reader will forgive discursion later, when she is immersed in the story.  Not on page one and two.


  1. I think her query is not a bad opening line at all: "I am 16 years old. I don't know what to do" yada yada yada.

  2. I've always thought it would be fun to write YA, because you start with something like that and go to and ending where she DOES know what to do.

  3. Thanks for this, Jo. Well-put, and in a nutshell. A handy guide to keep close. If I had to choose one...I'd pick "reveal character."

  4. Hi Pam --

    " And, behind the second curtain is . . . Reveal Character !!"

    Good choice. If you can make the reader care about the character she'll forgive everything else.

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  6. Okay, I think you just fixed a problem with my opening. One cannot read this advice often enough. For me, the temptation is to have an opening that starts at the bottom of an incline. I trudge up behind the plot like Sisyphus rolling the boulder, with much the same result.

  7. Hi Annie --

    There are so very many good ways to start a story.

    In your analogy --

    The bottom of the hill tells us all the history and all the surroundings and puts the character in action.

    But the reader knows what the next six pages are going to hold.

    At the top, the boulder wobbles on the peak of the hill and possibilities open up and the reader turns the page fast to find out what happens next . . .

  8. Thanks, Jo. Of course, what I should have said is that you identified the problem. Fixing it is another matter! *g*

  9. Inside my mind, I'm chanting, "Reveal character," as I rewrite bits of my opening.

    Many thanks.'d kick butt with a YA!

  10. Anonymous2:04 PM

    I'm going to pack a parachute from now on. I've found penguin service wholly unreliable and I just won't tolerate it when I'm a paying customer. Just saying...

    Snout's Ghost

  11. I keep reading "the first million words are for practice" and getting depressed. My instincts tell me you're right, but does it have to be a million words of fiction or does nonfiction count?

    I'm intrigued by the books generated by your LibraryThing list. Hmmm, I thinks to myself, I wonder why she's reading about that and what it has to do with Adrian and Justine.

  12. Non-fiction counts toward the million words. Nonfiction teaches us persistence and organization. How to write concisely. How to edit.

    I'm fond of the Library Thing widget. So random. So interesting.

  13. Great post on beginnings!

  14. Thank you kindly . . . *g*