Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Let's Start At The Very Beginning (Or Not)

I think everyone in the literary universe will tell you that there is no scene more important than the one you use to open your book. This is your (nevergetasecondchancetomakea) first impression. Your powerful handshake. Your resume to apply for a position at the Published Authors Guild. A potential employer is going to glance at your resume, and if he likes what he sees, he'll ask you to come in for an interview so he can learn more. Don't mess up your resume.

These days, readers' expectations and attention spans are shaped by faster media: television, movies, internet. It makes sense then that writing styles have morphed correspondingly to become more visual and immediate. Am I the only writer who imagines an opening chapter like the beginning of a movie? Probably not. Fade in: A teary-eyed woman stands at the edge of a Dover cliff, preparing to leap to her demise...

Here's the deal though: Your opening has to be more than just a cool image. You have to dig deeper. The opening chapter is a promise of what is to come, a promise to the reader that if they invest the time to read your entire book, the payoff will be there.

First, the obvious: avoid the cliches. Don't open with a dream. What does this tell me about the MC? That she has nightmares about bad things in her past? Good, so does everyone else in the world. It may seem like a great idea at the time, but when you're done, look back, call it a rookie mistake and cut, cut, cut. I think you would be very hard pressed to convince an agent or editor that your dream scene is better than just opening with real, live interaction. This leads to a couple of other cliched openings: looking into a mirror, waking up (guilty!). See also: waking up with a hangover, waking up late for something. Everyone's day starts in the morning--that doesn't mean your book has to start there too. Be wary of opening with someone's thoughts, as thoughts are the gateway to exposition. Be conscious of whether you're writing an engrossing, immediate scene, or ten pages of backstory dump.

Once you've reached a level of enlightenment where you know what not to use for your opening, think about what you can use. How can you, in the most subtle and original way, reveal small, important details about your MC? What can you hint at that will make the reader say, I must know more! Try making a list of the most important details about your MC, the ones that will end up affecting the plot later on. Where can you tuck those in--in a thought, a line of dialogue? Here's a thought-provoking line from Les Edgerton's Hooked: "A good opening should contain at least the seeds of the ending."

Above all else, spend an obscene amount of time on your first sentence. A great first sentence can knock someone's socks off. Write every single word with purpose, and you'll find that you can provide setting, character and conflict right off the bat. Go pull some of your favorite books off your shelves, and see how much information their first sentences deliver about the world you're about to enter.

Your book's opening can be generic, or it can be awesomely, uniquely yours. Which do you want it to be?


  1. Great post!

    I have trouble with the opening sentence. Gawd, I want to slit my wrists sometimes when I think of how many times I've rewritten it. Yikes.

    I totally agree with you about starting the story in someplace/time less mundane. In my manuscript, the story's concept opens with the death of the protagonist's grandmother. I originally had the protag thinking about the death (boring), remembering how she found it, crying about it (are you asleep yet?). Eventually, I scrapped all of that completely and now I open the manuscript at the funeral scene. Sooooo much better. And most importantly, that's where the paranormal activity starts....;) Why have a chapter leading into it? Just jump right in. The readers will figure out all the backstory in time if you drop the right information along the way.

  2. I so agree that people want that instant gratification when reading a novel. Why not? Media and movies encourage that feeling with action packed sequences within the first couple minutes.

    Authors are expected to write in a similar way. If the reader isn't *grabbed* by your opening page, then there are a bajillion books waiting in the background. All of us are the worm on the hook. Let's just hope we reel in a BIG fish!

  3. Yes, totally agree with everything! Readers are picky and they will bail on the story if the opening isn't interesting. Nobody's really willing to stick around and wait for the story to "get good". Which I understand... life is short, and there's a lot of good books out there!

  4. So no pressure! URG, I am so sick of my first chapter! I am horrible about chucking a book if I don't like the first paragraph, though, so I can't blame other readers for expecting a lot!