Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Let's Start At The Very Beginning (Or Not)
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?