Make Your Opening Count

moss-closeWhen I began marketing my short stories and novels, I was often puzzled by the request to just see the first page of my work. “I only need to see the first page to know whether your book is good or ready to publish,” they would say. I was aghast. How presumptuous! Surely, that wasn’t enough! Surely they were just putting me off and not really interested in the first place! That couldn’t be enough…

I was wrong. It often is.

Years later—and currently a seasoned writer of over a dozen published books, short stories, and a writing teacher & coach—I can tell you that it is generally true. The opening page is usually enough for me to know whether the author is professional, knows their ending, writes a compelling and directed story, and whether the story is ready to be published. Does that sound pompous of me?

If you think so, then read no further. If you’re not sure, read on and I hope to convince you that your opening is more than likely the most important part of your novel or short story. That doesn’t mean that you should inordinately concentrate on polishing it over and over and over at the expense of the rest of your work. That won’t work either; this is because a good opening relies on a good story. Think of it as the introduction to the core issue of your story. Think of it as a long title. If you don’t know where your story is going or what it is about, then your opening will undeniably reflect this.

A good opening resonates with the theme of your story; a great opening creatively illuminates that theme with intrigue.

My post entitled “How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver” discusses the three-step model of hooking the reader in an opening and how to maintain their interest throughout the length of your story. You can read it there, so I won’t go into it here (e.g., the steps are 1) arouse; 2) delay; and 3) reward). What I wanted to talk about here is more about what goes into a first page of any piece of writing to make it a great opening.

“A novel is like a car,” says Sol Stein (Sol Stein on Writing). “It won’t go anywhere until you start the engine.” Take a look at the opening of your WIP and see if its engine is running.

Openings should:

  • Begin with something happening to a major character
  • Arouse the Reader’s interest (with intrigue)
    • Introduce conflict
    • Threaten a likeable character
    • Reveal an unusual character or situation
  • Begin with a “scene” (action; “showing”) not a “sequel” (reflection; “telling”)

“Start your book with a scene where something is happening, and action takes place; show the drama not the reaction to it,” says Elizabeth Lyon (The Sell Your Novel Toolkit). Start in the middle, not the beginning of your story. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) tells us that scenes and their corresponding sequels form an integral part of a story’s larger plot movement. And to apply sound story-building, this dynamic relationship must be first understood. You “show” in a scene, which plays out the goal, conflict and inevitable disaster of the protagonist; sequels, in turn, often “tell” of the protagonist’s reaction, dilemma, and decision (which propels the character on to the next scene). Yet, time and again, I read openings that are actually sequels (leading to action; but not action themselves). They may languish and even entertain with clever intellectual description, but they do not scintillate with intrigue or direction. It is a little like reading the review of a movie before watching it for yourself (one of the reasons why I never consult a review before I watch a movie—because I want to live it with the characters first hand, or at least give myself the chance to).

Another way of thinking of the scene / sequel dynamic is to see them as cause and effect or action and reaction. An opening in action is more likely to grip the reader in its visceral intrigue and promise of the story’s direction than an intellectualization of an event that happened off stage.

The table below provides a few suggestions on what to include and what not to in an opening page.

Good Openings Don’t… Instead They…
Contain lots of back story Integrate back story in with scene as needed in the appropriate place
Contain lots of exposition, setting, character description, etc. Reveal place and character detail with action as needed
Start with reflection, explanations – particularly about something “off-stage” in time or space Start with action / conflict / turmoil / discovery – start mid-stride with intrigue, then reveal after…
Start with a dream or waking up or other ordinary / mundane scenario heading towards the action or conflict Start with something HAPPENING … Start with a SCENE in “the NOW” as it is happening
TELL SHOW

 

misty-forest-path-slovakiaThere are many ways to manage the fine balance of exposition, telling and showing and
other challenges in grabbing and keeping the reader’s interest; all very pertinent to your opening page. But that’s another article.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver

winter walk-stockholmA great story opening arouses, delays and rewards. Constructing a compelling beginning—often called a hook—is a common challenge for even established writers, and one of the most important parts of a story.

The opening should sweep the reader into the story like a tidal wave. It doesn’t need to be wild action. It just needs to compel the reader to want to know more. This is accomplished by engaging the reader with “intrigue”. In his article “Three Ways to Keep Your Readers Hooked” in the April 2001 issue of Writer’s Digest, Joe Cardillo suggested that the three elements of hooking a reader resemble the steps he uses to train his Samoyed puppy: 1) arouse interest; 2) delay, then 3) reward.

The writer arouses interest in the reader by providing enough detail to get the reader to ask questions. Now they want something. You tease them with the delay; that keeps them reading and turning the pages. It also gives them the chance to try to come up with the answers themselves. The reward comes in stages. Don’t answer all their questions at once. That’s what the book—the story—is for. The reward, parceled out in stages, lets the reader know that you can deliver and will ultimately provide them with a fulfilling story at the end. The beginning of your book sets up a covenant between you and the reader, a covenant for a journey you will take together toward resolution.

There is no beginning without an end. In her book The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit (Revised Edition, Perigee Trade, 2002) Elizabeth Lyon suggested that the beginning of a novel should “reflect the entire book. There should be a tie-in [between] the beginning and the end”. This is sometimes called “framing” a story, where the principal thematic problem is given in the beginning and then resolved in the end. In his book, A Story is a Promise (Blue Heron Publishing, 2000) Bill Johnson describes it as a promise to the reader.

“Dramatic story-issues revolve around issues of human need,” says Johnson. “The need to be loved. To have control of one’s fate. To feel a sense of purpose. To be able to overcome obstacles. To be able to grow and heal from life’s wounds. To understand and make sense of the events of life.” He warns that “if you can’t name the issue at the heart of your story [the theme], it risks being unclear to your audience.” And this needs to be identified, at least intuitively for the reader, at the beginning of the story. You do this through intrigue in the beginning and pointing out through scene what is at stake or at issue in your story.

Additional things to consider in openings include:

  • Avoid starting your story at “the beginning”: instead, start mid-way, when something is already happening—preferably to someone important in your story and at the pivotal point when you provide the “story promise” pertinent to the theme.
  • Quell the urge to put in a lot of information about setting, character and situation: get things in motion first, then reveal here and there. Let the details unfold with the story like a flowing piece of artwork.
  • Trust your reader: novice writers have not yet gained the confidence to trust that they won’t lose the reader in the beginning if they don’t tell them everything right away. The key is to choose just enough to whet their appetite for more. And, yes, it is critical what you choose. What you choose should relate to your story’s theme and its story promise: the problem.

A great opening is a seductive tease, deliciously delivered; it promises an exotic ride that only you can fulfill.

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!

Recommended Reading:winter light streaming

  • Cardillo, Joe. 2001. “Three Ways to Keep Your Readers Hooked”. Writer’s Digest, April, 2001, volume 81, no. 4.
  • Johnson, Bill. 2000. A Story Is a Promise. Blue Heron Publishing. Portland, Oregon. 187pp.
  • Lyon, Elizabeth. 2002. The Sell Your Novel Took Kit. Revised Edition. Perigee Trade. 320pp.
  • Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 264pp.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.