M|W News: How to write an engaging opening

I’ve been reading a lot of submissions lately. To put that into perspective, that’s a lot of reading the first three chapters of books and deciding what works and what doesn’t and if the manuscript I’m looking at has the potential I’m looking for.

The one thing I’ve been noticing lately that really makes or break those first few chapters, or even the opening few paragraphs is how engaging the story is or isn’t. What makes something engaging or not is hard to pin down, but there are a few things that can help.

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Consider your opening line

I can’t stress enough how important your opening line is! It should hook your reader and make them want to read on. Some examples from Mirror World books that I can offer are:

“A little violet envelope with sparkling silver wings fluttered through the fog in search of its destination.” – She Dreamed of Dragons by Elizabeth J. M. Walker

“When Mirena received the letter, she knew it could only contain bad news.” – Mirror’s Hope by Justine Alley Dowsett and Murandy Damodred

“A baby’s cry.” – Sol of the Coliseum by Adam Gaylord

These are all very different opening lines, but they have one thing in common. They all subtly put a question into the reader’s mind. They’re intriguing. Just by reading them you want to know more. Where is the violet envelope going? What sort of bad news is Mirena about to receive? How does she know it’s bad? What is a baby doing in the Coliseum?

They also all set the tone of the story you’re about to read by giving just the tiniest bit of information. Again, so that you want to know more and therefore keep reading. Elizabeth’s opening line in She Dreamed of Dragons tells the reader clearly that they are entering into a fantasy world where envelopes fly and anything is possible. Adam Gaylord does the opposite and subverts the reader’s expectations by starting a gladiator novel with the sound of a baby crying in the last place you would expect to hear that.

 ‘In media res’inmediasres

Another way to generate interest in the story you’re telling in the first few opening lines is to start in the middle of whatever is going on. Your first scene is just as important as your first line. It should be interesting and in the thick of things while still being clear enough that the reader is able to follow along. Your goal should be to immerse your reader in the story immediately.

Here’s an example from Leigh Goff’s young adult fantasy novel, Disenchanted

While scooping dried witches wort into sachets at the shop counter, I watched a girl with dark upswept hair, wearing a Puritan cap and dress, emerge from behind a tall display shelf of Aunt Janie’s Forbidden Passion Potion. She looked to be a bit older than me, maybe seventeen or eighteen.

“Are you one of the historic foundation’s tour guides? If so, you get a discount on the merchandise.”

As you can see by the example, ‘in media res’ doesn’t need to refer to being in the middle of the plot or in the middle of an action sequence, but it does need to be where things are happening. The opening scene should also be relevant to your story and directly tie in to what your story is about. A good way to do this is to start with whatever scene it is that kicks your plot into action. In the case of Leigh Goff’s Disenchanted, it’s the meeting of this girl dressed like a Puritan that sets Sophie’s story into motion and the Puritan girl is directly relevant to the plot. (No spoilers, you’ll just have to read it!)

Avoid infodump or passive backstory details

Backstory about the info-dumptruckcharacters and the setting are important. It helps to explain what’s going on and makes clear to the reader how the characters got to where they are now. However, it is extremely important not to just get this all out at once (especially at the beginning) even if you might be tempted to. Find creative ways to reference the past without just telling the reader what happened. Or, spread the information through the action instead of telling it all at once.

Continuing the scene from above, Leigh Goff does this very well in Disenchanted:

“Are you one of the historic foundation’s tour guides? If so, you get a discount on the merchandise.”

It wasn’t unusual for ordinary girls to be touring around Wethersfield, Connecticut, in period costumes, pointing out graves of the seriously self-righteous Puritans who participated in hanging the Wethersfield witches. However, I knew all the ordinaries who had summer jobs with the foundation, and I didn’t recognize her, not that she looked like one of them beyond the outfit.

I tightened the strings on the sachets and tossed them into a large decorative basket on the shop floor. I wiped the honey-scented witcheswort dust on my spring green apron.

“Would you be interested in sampling our Tulips to Kiss Stick? The tulip pollen lushifies your lips.”

Information about the setting and the history of the town is provided as context and it is neatly tucked between the dialogue and the action, so the scene continues without getting bogged down with information and the reader learns what they need to know to follow along.

 Show, don’t show-dont-tell-checkhovtell

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice a million times: Show, don’t tell! But what does it mean and how do you do it?

It has a little to do with all the things I’ve already mentioned. The important thing to keep in mind is never to tell the reader something when you can show it to them instead. This is another way you can avoid info dumps. In the example above, Leigh Goff never actually mentions that her protagonist, Sophie, works at her Aunt Janie’s shop, nor does she expressly say what kind of shop it is exactly, yet all of those things are clear by Sophie’s actions and the products she interacts with.

Showing also means using active words and language to describe what’s happening in your story. Try to avoid telling us what has already happened and instead focus on what currently going on.

 

So, take a good look at your first line, your first paragraph and your first page and check your story to see how engaging it is. Does it draw readers in? Does it hook them by subtly presenting questions so they want to read more? Does it provide the information they need to follow along without bogging them down in the details? And most of all, does it show instead of tell?

If you have any more tips for writing an engaging opening, make sure to leave them in the comments below! And if you’re looking for more information on this topic, be sure to check out this week’s episode of Mirror World News:

 

 

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4 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this segment and I was wondering if you might consider doing a future episode on “conflict.” When I think of conflict, the first thing that comes to mind is engagement with a direct enemy, but that’s not always case, is it? Can the conflict in a story be nature vs. MC or economics vs. MC, as examples? Must conflict always be Person vs. Person? Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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