Story Openings–Part 1: Elements of a good openingon February 8th, 2012 at 9:41 PM
The opening of your story is the most important piece of writing in the entire work because this is where you either engage or lose your reader. In today’s market, where e-books abound and readers have the opportunity to sample first, it’s even more crucial that the opening be a strong one.
Even before the rise of serious self-publishing, the opening mattered every bit as much. When you had to put your work in front of agents or publishers, if the opening failed to hook them, you likely ended there. Many agents have said that, regardless of how many pages you send, they start reading and if they reach the end of the sample before wanting to put it down, you stood a chance. Whereas an agent would sometimes give you a bit of feedback (“not for us” or “I just didn’t fall in love with it” that was something at least, even if the agent was being charitably tactful. When your prospective reader downloads an e-book sample, if it doesn’t hook him, he simply won’t make the purchase, and you’ll never know why. I’ve heard writers say, in all sincerity, that their novel really gets going after the first fifty or hundred pages.
In coming blogs, Scott and I will talk about crafting great covers and picking good titles that can grab a reader’s attention initially. We also plan to tackle writing good cover blurbs. For now, we’re going to concentrate on getting your opening in shape. Having those three precursor elements perfect (title, cover, blurb), though important, won’t make the final sale if the story–which is what matters most–fails to engage. And it’s not a compliment to your writing if a reviewer says that the story is good once you get past the first hundred pages.
SIDE NOTE: The traditionally published bestselling novel The Magicians by Lev Grossman had more than one reviewer state that you could pretty much skip the first half of the novel and not miss anything. I read it–borrowed from the library–and came to the same conclusion. Some say his second book is better, but I have no intention of reading it. A friend once offered the advice: Life’s too short to read bad books. Imagine how devastating such reviews would be to an indie author struggling to get noticed.
The quicker you hook your reader, the better. I’ve developed a good rule for openings that works well. Of course, like all rules, it’s not applicable to every novel, but it’s a good place to begin. Strive to establish character, setting, and conflict by the end of your first page, and if you can do it in the first paragraph or two, even better. When your reader samples your first pages, you want to grab him immediately, make him want to read to the end of it, then be so hooked that he must buy it. This principle applies to the first pages, whatever they comprise. We’ve previously discussed the pro and cons of prologs. Whether you use a prolog or begin at chapter one, your opening pages MUST be strong. Otherwise, what’s the point? It won’t do to make the opening of chapter one great if the prolog before it is weak. We’ll go into more detail on these elements later.
There exist dozens of types of openings, and no single type or style can possibly serve all stories. But any great opening needs a strong hook that piques the reader’s interest. That hook should not be cheesy gimmick, either. One of the worst mistakes new writers make is to open with a spectacular dream and not tell the reader it’s a dream until the character wakes up. Why is this a mistake? Because it tricks the reader, and rarely in a good way. The reader will feel cheated by a ploy of sensationalism, especially if the character dies in the dream then the reader learns that no one died in reality. Think of your opening as a sales pitch, a commercial if you will. Which commercials have you loved, and which turned you off the product because of cheap tricks?
So, you should never open with a dream or a clever ploy? Not necessarily. Done properly, a dream (such as telling the reader it’s a recurring dream that has been a problem for the character), can work to your advantage. But it had better be a very interesting dream with a purpose in the story and not one thrown in to trick the reader.
Writers hear all kinds of advice: never open with dialog or a flashback or a weather report. While usually good advice, I can (and will in upcoming installments) show you superb openings that use these effectively.
Another mistake new writers make is to open with pages of exposition, description, longwinded explanations, backstory, or irrelevant filler before they get to the main story. This is where many prologs go wrong. Open your story at a turning point, where something is about to change in the character’s life, the trigger for the story. Don’t be tempted to tell the reader about the character’s life before this event–at least not right away–but if you must do so (for a compelling story reason), then keep it brief and interesting. Always be conscious of the fact that what you, the writer, find interesting may be boring to a reader. Tread carefully.
In a future installment, I’ll give some clear examples of weak openings (some from classic novels as well) and what NOT to do. It’s interesting to note that one reason so many publishers initially rejected the first Harry Potter novel was because the opening violated many (most?) of the principles I’ve stated here. We’ll discuss that later on, as well, but you might want to take a close look at the first chapter “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Now, with those preliminaries out of the way, let’s look at a few examples of good openings that follow the principles I’ve outlined above. These come from a variety of genres. I’ve numbered them for reference in later posts.
 It snowed in Sunridge for the first time in twenty years the day they put the old man in the ground, and Jason West knew damned well the bastard had summoned it up himself.
He wondered what they would do, these people in their somber dark dresses and respectable suits and ties and coats, if he gave in to the urge to spit on the old man’s grave. They were already staring at his jeans and boots, noses up, as if only good manners prevented them from sniffing disdainfully. [“Wild Hawk” by Justine Dare]
 They sat stiffly on his antique Eames chairs, two people who didn’t want to be here, or one person who didn’t want to and one who resented the other’s reluctance. Dr. Ong had seen this before. Within two minutes he was sure: the woman was the silently furious resister. She would lose. The man would pay for it later, in little ways, for a long time. [“Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress]
 When bad people are chasing you, life is dangerous. When good people are chasing you, like is awkward. But when you are chasing yourself, the most simple facts of existence become disturbing, destabilizing, and a source of unending waking confusion.
So it was with Flinx, who in searching for the history of himself, found that he was once again treading upon the hallowed, mystic soil of the spherical blue-white womb among the stars that had given birth to his whole species. Only, the soil he was treading presently was being treated by those around him with something other than veneration, and a means of sourcing the information he hoped to uncover was still to be found. [“Reunion” by Alan Dean Foster]
 How does one describe Artemis Fowl? Various psychiatrists have tried and failed. The main problem is Artemis’s own intelligence. He bamboozles every test thrown at him. He has puzzled the greatest medical minds, and sent many of them gibbering to their own hospitals.
There is no doubt that Artemis is a child prodigy. But why does someone of such brilliance dedicate himself to criminal activities? This is a question that can be answered by only one person, and he delights in not talking. Perhaps the best way to create an accurate picture of Artemis is to tell the by now famous account of his first villainous venture. I have put together this report from firsthand interviews with the victims, and as the tale unfolds, you will realize this was not easy.
The story began several years ago, at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Artemis Fowl had devised a plan to restore his family’s fortune. A plan that could topple civilizations and plunge the planet into a cross-species war.
He was twelve years old at the time. [“Artemis Fowl” by Eoin Colfer]
 Two big clocks hung high at one end of the great hall, counting time. One ran in reverse, measuring out how long was left until the end-time: almost exactly twenty-eight years and six months. The other was a normal clock, and it was creepy-crawling to nine fifty-three p.m., the moment of the summer solstice. The moment King Scarred-Jaguar and two hundred other Nightkeeper warrior-priests would take their places in the sacred tunnels beneath Chichén Itzá and cast the king’s spell, sealing the intersection of the earth, sky, and underworld.
Three minutes and change to go. [“Nightkeepers” by Jessica Andersen]
 The gem-colored dream shattered, and left the kid gaping on the street. Jarred by passers-by and stunned by ugliness, he gulped humid night air. The dreamtime he had paid his last marker for was over, and somewhere in the street voices sang, “Reality is no one’s dream…”
A richly robed customer of the Last Chance suicide gaming house knocked him against a pitted wall, not even seeing him. He cursed wearily and fumbled his way to the end of the building. Pressure-sensitive lighting flickered beneath the heavy translucent pavement squares, trailing him as he stepped into the funnel of an alleyway. Aching with more than one kind of hunger, he crept into the darkness to sleep it off.
And one of the three Contract Labor recruiters who had been watching him nodded, and said, “Now.” [“Psion” by Joan Vinge]
 As I approached the front door of The First Bank of Bit O’ Heaven, it sensed my presence and swung open with an automatic welcome. I stepped briskly through–and stopped. But I was just far enough inside so that the door was unable to close behind me. While it was sliding shut I took the arc pen from my bag–then spun about just as it had closed completely. I had stopwatched its mechanical reflex time on other trips to the bank, so I knew that I had just 1.67 seconds to do the necessary. Time enough. [“A Stainless Steel Rat is Born” by Harry Harrison]
 The angel was cleaning out his closet when the call came. Halos and moonbeams were sorted into piles according to brightness, satchels of wrath and scabbards of lightning hung on hooks waiting to be dusted. A wineskin of glory had leaked in the corner and the angel blotted it with a wad of fabric. Each time he turned the cloth a muted chorus rang from the closet, as if he’d clamped the lid down on a pickle jar full of Hallelujah Chorus.
“Raziel, what in heaven’s name are you doing?”
The archangel Stephan was standing over him, brandishing a scroll like a rolled-up magazine over a piddling puppy.
“Orders?” the angel asked.
“I was just there.”
“Two millennia ago.”
“Really?” Raziel checked his watch, then tapped the crystal. “Are you sure?”
“What do you think?” Stephan held out the scroll so Raziel could see the Burning Bush seal.
“When do I leave? I was almost finished here.”
“Now. Pack the gift of tongues and some minor miracles. No weapons, it’s not a wrath job. You’ll be undercover. Very low profile, but important. It’s all in the orders.” Stephan handed him the scroll.
“I asked that too.”
“I was reminded why angels are cast out.”
“Whoa! That big?”
Stephan coughed, clearly an affectation, since angels didn’t breathe. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to know, but the rumor is that it’s a new book.”
“You’re kidding. A sequel? Revelations 2, just when you thought it was safe to sin?”
“It’s a Gospel.”
“A Gospel, after all this time? Who?
“Levi who is called Biff.”
Raziel dropped his rag and stood. “This has to be a mistake.”
“It comes directly from the Son.”
“There’s a reason Biff isn’t mentioned in the other books, you know? He’s a total–”
“Don’t say it.”
“But he’s such an asshole.” [“Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore]
Each of these contains a hook for the reader and embodies the “character, setting, conflict” principle. Each one shows something about to happen, a change from what existed before–even though we may yet not know the character’s prior situation. Each one accomplishes its purpose differently. Each one makes you want to know more. In every case, the reader is dropped into the story with one or more questions having been posed. Note that while some of them tell instead of showing, this is not necessarily bad.
Study these openings. Do they all work for you? Why do they work? Would you read on? Perhaps also examine the opening of a piece you’re currently working on. What have you promised the reader in it? Does the opening pose a question? Does it set up an expectation? Does the reader have a sense of something about the happen? Or have you merely thrown paragraphs of description and explanation onto the first pages without giving the reader a clue as to what the story might be about? Does your main story begin in the first paragraph or the first page? Or does it really start several pages later?
In the next installments, I’ll discuss these eight openings (and others) in detail and explore techniques to help you craft great openings of your own. We’ll look at hooks and “voice” as part of the hook. We’ll look at weak openings and at great openings that are exceptions to the “character, setting, conflict” principle. Or are they exceptions?