ME: I’m a little behind in typing up this recap.
VOICE IN MY HEAD: A little? You’re a month behind! *shakes a fist in Why-I-Oughtta fashion*
ME: *cowers* I know, I know. But better late than never, right?
At May’s SWO live chat, we discussed story openings. Here’s a little precursor to our session.
If you missed the chat, or if you were there but it was too buggy to keep up (sorry!), here are the highlights:
At the start of the chat, attendees posted either their own story openings or the openings of their favorite books. This was not meant to be a critique session (although a little of that went on); rather, we pointed out what the reader learns from each opening and what makes each opening successful or not.
This led to talk about what it means to have a “successful” opening. It’s subjective, of course; but, for the most part, we agreed that in order to deem a story opening a success, it has to hook the reader in some way—because, while readers might give the author a few chapters before giving up, agents pretty much won’t. Translation: Your opening needs to do something—and right away.
As we looked at real examples, we noted that the best ones oriented the reader. As one member put it, an opening has to service your narrative in a clear way.
The best openings were those that:
- Showed voice
- Gave context
- Displayed character insight
- Raised questions
WAYS TO ORIENT THE READER
- Work in age the main character’s age—especially important if you’re writing children’s or YA
- Pay close attention to voice and diction here, as that can be very telling
- Hone in on structure and pacing (i.e., if it’s supposed to be a tense action scene, your sentence structure and punctuation
should mimic that)
- Indicate genre or story type
- Injecting setting can do this (i.e., placing your characters in the woods might suggest it’s fantasy)
- Names can do this (i.e., if a character’s name is “Zender,” like in one of the examples we analyzed, that gives the sense it’s sci-fi or fantasy—more so than if the dude’s name is “Bob”)
- Indicate protag’s goals/motivations (i.e., if it starts off talking about a dungeon escape, the reader might deduce it’s probably not contemporary fiction)
THINGS TO AVOID
- Avoid gimmicks
- Like the “fake-out” beginning (where you set it up to look like one thing is true, but you read the rest of the page and discover it isn’t. Many agents—Nathan Bransford, for one—shy away from the “gotcha” opener)
- Probably don’t start with poetry
- You don’t need to start with a fireworks display—particularly if you can’t follow it up anything
- If you do this, it can come off as “gimmicky”
Opening of Stephen King’s Gunslinger series:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
- This tells so much without saying anything at all, really
- Good guy vs. bad guy
- A chase—an escape
- In many ways, this one line serves as a microcosm for the entire series.
Up-and-coming YA author Jodi Meadows was kind enough to send me her opening to the first book in her New Soul trilogy, Erin Incarnate. I have posted her thoughts it on Shenandoah Writers Online under the “Files” tab at the top of the main page. In the file, Jodi shows her original opening and talks about the changes her agent wanted her to implement—and why making those changes made her opening stronger.
For SWO members, click here to access Jodi’s file.*
We also indicated you can probably play devil’s advocate for each of these suggestions or cite counter examples in published books. However, it’s important to remember we’re trying to establish some “rules” here—not exceptions. As well, we’re talking about writers trying to break into the industry given today’s market—not established authors whose books are going to sell a bajillion copies no matter what they write.
Now, it’s your turn. Anything to add to the conversation?
*Not an SWO member yet? Click here to get started.
4 thoughts on “If You Missed the SWO LIVE CHAT on Story Openings . . .”
Thanks for this overview! I especially liked the comment that good openings raise questions. This is a great way of making sure the story’s conflict — or at least hints of it, at least tension to keep the reader turning the page — is presented soon enough to engage the reader. Your phrasing of it here really helped this point hit home for me.
I’m glad you found it helpful, Lisa!
It was a nice little chat. I could prob analyze story openings for hours. It was so much fun, and there is so much insight to glean from every single opening line/paragraph!
Hope you’re doing well!
I’m a big fan of the Dark Tower series and would agree that the opening to The Gunslinger is a classic. In addition to your list, I would suggest that the opening line also gives the reader a hint of the setting, a world of desolation that is built throughout the series.
SPOILER ALERT: This classic first line is also the last line of the final book (aggravating many fans, but I thought it worked).
Ooh – yes – with the desert!
I didn’t know that about the last line – very cool. I’ll have to read those books one of these days!