Writing Question: Strong Openings

Short-story writers are often told that if they don’t grab the attention of an editor immediately with a hot hook in the opening sentence or opening paragraph, the editor will reject the story.  Similarly, novelists are told that they must captivate the bookstore browser with their first page, or the browser will put the book back on the shelf.  This puts a lot of pressure on the opening of a work.  How do you write an opening that will grab the readers attention and show them just how awesome your story is?  It’s a difficult task, so we asked the Odyssey graduates for their tips and advice when it comes to writing a strong opening.

Writers are told that they must accomplish many things in an opening scene–grab the reader’s attention, set up the conflict, introduce the protagonist, establish the setting, establish the point of view and style, raise a question, and on and on. What goals do you try to achieve in an opening scene? What elements do you introduce? What do you think is most important for an opening scene? How are your goals different for the opening scene of a short story and the opening scene of a novel?

Michael J. DeLuca, class of 2005

I’ve been reading unsolicited short fiction submissions at two different genre magazines for a total of about 3 1/2 years. Over that time, I’ve seen a lot of not-so-great openings. It may be a result of this experience, but “huh” openings don’t really do it for me. The shock or surprise of a really odd or clever first line might be enough to make me read the second line–but what I’m really looking for is something that doesn’t just pique my interest, but draws me in fully, engrossing me in a character or situation or place or idea. I want an opening that proves to the reader this is an author they can trust to tell a great story. For me, a first line that makes me go “huh?” can be a sign of just the opposite: that maybe the author is trying to pull something over on me. Then I’m spending my time trying to guess what that might be, rather than enjoying the story.

So when I write an opening, I try to go for a lasting impression. Often, this means focusing strongly on one or two elements of craft I think I can do exceptionally well and letting the others filter through in the background or be filled in later. I happen to consider myself better skilled at prose style, description and theme than I am at plot or character or (heaven forfend) dialogue, so a lot of my openings tend to be dense, meticulously worded paragraphs of character internalization or setting detail weighty with pathetic fallacy. But I know how important character and inciting incident are, so I revise my openings endlessly, trying to cram that stuff in using as few words as possible.

The more stories I write, the more I realize that many of these seemingly disparate, equally necessary aspects of an opening (style, tone, setting, description, character, conflict, POV, theme) actually can be made to fit one inside another. In a single sentence, a character can observe, interact with, and react to a setting in such a way that we learn something about who they are, the mood they’re in and why, the world that surrounds them, and what this story is going to be about. Of course, it helps when a lot of those answers are the same. I try to make that happen by keeping my stories intensely focused on a theme, so that ideally, everything that appears in the prose serves to illustrate a facet of that theme. The better I do that, the more overlap there is between different aspects of the craft, and the more meaning I can get across in the first few sentences.

Scott T. Barnes, class of 2008

What’s very important to me is establishing the tone right away: humorous, dramatic, scary, languid, edge of your seat . . . My favorite stories establish a memorable tone right away and carry it through. The best example I can think of is The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle. In addition, I try to set up some movement so the reader gets caught up in the ride, and the best short story openings point straight at the conflict. Novel openings can take more time, but you still need that movement. I almost invariably introduce the protagonist in the first paragraph, though introducing the villian can work in novels.

Maggie Della Rocca, class of 2005

I find it too daunting to think about accomplishing a long list of elements in an opening scene. I focus on what I find engaging in the openings of novels and stories, and try to keep it simple. I love an intriguing or clever opening line, but that doesn’t necessarily have staying power. I’ve forgotten the clever opening by the time I turn the first page–if the rest of the writing doesn’t live up to the promise.

The promise is the contract that Nancy Kress writes about in Beginning, Middles, and Ends, in which the reader unconsciously forms an expectation about a story or novel. I am most engaged by novels or stories that promise me that I will see something that I’ve never seen before. Or that I will see something old but presented in a whole new light. In other words, that I’ll be surprised. However, it is a lot easier to promise surprises than deliver them, as I have found by reading far too many disappointing novels, as well as in attempting to write them.

My first draft openings are generally very practical and utilitarian. I expect to cut it completely. In fact, it is likely that I’ll wind up starting a story several pages later in the draft. I find that a good opening is usually cultivated after completing the rest of the story.

What makes that opening good? I can only go with what I like, which can be different from other readers and writers. I’m in no hurry to meet the protagonist and I have no problem if he or she isn’t introduced for several chapters. I’ve read so much Sci Fi and Fantasy that I’m quite open to strange new universes without knowing the rules or boundaries, so the immediate introduction of something exotic and strange will grab my attention and hook me–provided that the style of writing is to my liking. One device that I think is effective is when a story starts as though the universe is contemporary or recognizable, but then an exotic element is introduced by the end of the first paragraph or so, which turns expectations around.

When it comes time to choose how to open my current novel, I will consider the reader contract first. What do I want the reader to expect from this book? Do I plan to break that promise deliberately but to good effect (probably not because I’m not that skilled). What is the most interesting thing about my story? What is the most important theme by the conclusion, so that I make sure to include an element of that in the opening.

Rebecca Shelley (R. D. Henham), class of 2001

In my openings, I try to make sure I’m totally immersed in the main character’s point of view from the first word on.  To do that, I attempt to put something from all five senses in the first one to three paragraphs to ground the reader in the story.

Shara Saunsaucie White, class of 2005

When I think about openings, I think about the three P’s. This term came from Tobias S. Buckell when I attended a lecture of his at Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction Program. The three P’s are

Person
Place
Problem

It sounds like a tall order, especially when writing a short story over a novel. All of us in the class were working on novels though, so he slapped us with an exercise: to write three different versions of our openings, and then volunteers would read all three versions and the class would vote on the one they liked the best.

The idea was this: often, the first versions of the opening can be the least interesting and most stereotypical of the genre. When forced to come up with two more, you start thinking in different directions, and that’s when things get really interesting.

It was a memorable lesson. I found that the three P’s are very often complimentary: a person is always in a PLACE, and it’s the PROBLEM that creates tension and keeps the reader going.

Of course, when I sit down with a new short story or a novel, I don’t whip out three different openings right off the bat. I do, however, go through several starts while I’m trying to find the voice and tone that are going to sustain the rest of the first draft. The opening may not be perfect, but if it gets the machine started, that’s all that counts. Because let’s face it, and you’ll hear it over and over, it’s not until you complete that draft that you really know 1) what the story’s about and 2) where the right place is to start the story, especially for novelists. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in finding the perfect opening that you forget the most important thing is to actually finish the book. It took me FOREVER to learn that, and now that I have, it makes it much easier to resist the temptation to rewrite my openings when I get new and better ideas for them. At least, until I do finish the book, and then I can have lots of fun rewriting those openings until I’m convinced they’re perfect.

Erica Hildebrand, class of 2007

Elizabeth Hand told our class to never, ever, ever, EVER start with the weather. As soon as I heard that, I made a note to delete my opener, “It was a hot summer day.” I could never tell what really bothered me about that line (and it *did* bother me) except that I threw it in as a “safe” opening because, honestly, I didn’t have any better ideas at the time.

You have one chance to hook a reader and it’s not to be wasted. As for me, I stick with a quick flurry of the most interesting things I can think to throw in there. I love my opening lines to be dialogue. This gives me a sense that HERE something is happening, NOW something is happening.

It also makes the opening a manageable task for me. For example, let’s say I start with a chase scene. Okay, there’s action. Check. There’s at least one character, probably more, in conflict. Check. But, most importantly, it’s part of the plot scaffolding and gives me permission to just focus on what happens in this one scene.

Which is a lot more comfortable than, holy crap! I have no idea where this hugely huge project’s starting point is!

Don’t force all of your creative energy into the opening. You’ve still got an entire story after that. And don’t psych yourself out. After all, no matter what you write, you should revise it, and revision leads to clarity.

That “It was a hot summer day” line of mine? That was just the ringleader. I ended up deleting that whole chapter. And I’m still trying to find a decent opener.

Susan Shell Winston, class of 1996

I find it helps me decide where to start a novel by asking myself, if I were the character, where would I start telling someone else the story of what happened to me? From the character’s point of view, only certain events in the whole of his life relate to what happened. . . .  The character would identify the beginning of that phase in his life by what stands out (gets blamed) most in his memory . . . the event that drove him to do what he had to do.  Thinking of it this way helps me avoid writing those extra chapters ahead of the story that would have to be cut in revision.

Larry Hodges, class of 2006

What does a writer want to do in an opening scene? Answer: he/she wants to convince the reader that this is something worth reading.

How do you do that? By putting something in the opening scene that makes it compelling. It could be a character, a situation or idea, or even the setting. It should hint at what’s coming up in a way that the reader wants to find out more. It must be something that grabs the reader and says, “Isn’t this great? Let’s read on!”

To do this, you need to choose the right place to start your story. A common bad habit is to start at the beginning, even if nothing really compelling happens there. Find the first compelling part of the story and start there, and fill in background info as needed. In a first draft, you might start at the beginning, but once you figure out where the story becomes compelling, you know where to start the second draft.

Just as important as what goes in an opening scene is the question of what DOESN’T go in. The simple answer is anything that is NOT compelling. Save the non-compelling stuff for later. Of course, if it’s not compelling, ask yourself if it is really necessary. If it is necessary, find a way to make it interesting, and put it in later.
 Everything you write in your story needs to be interesting in some way, or it shouldn’t be in the story–but lots of interesting stuff that doesn’t advance the story can be the death of the story. So be careful about moving “interesting” stuff from the opening to other parts of the story.

Probably the most common mistake with opening scenes is to fill it with lots of information so the reader will understand the rest of the story that he no longer wants to read. The opening scene is not the time to info-dump. This doesn’t mean you don’t give out info in the opening scene–just make sure the info given is either necessary at that point, compelling, or (ideally) both.

It’s not easy. During the opening scene, the reader doesn’t know anything about the world you are launching him into, and so you have to give him enough information to make the scene coherent. This is why it is important to choose the right starting point. You must find a scene that’s compelling, even while giving out whatever info is needed to make it coherent. If the scene isn’t coherent, it isn’t compelling.

Spend extra time on that opening to make it (here’s that word again) as compelling as possible. Brainstorm, experiment, and putter about with it until it’s perfect. Because if it isn’t, all the genius and hard work you put into making the rest of the story compelling won’t matter because it won’t get read.

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