Openings are hard, but they are so crucial to get right. I’ll confess that I’ve had my share of trouble with them over the years. Typically, my way of dealing with them is to pay no more attention to them than I do the rest of the book, then return to them once I’ve completed the manuscript and re-work them while I’m tackling the second draft. This technique though is a lot like building the frame of a house and then worrying about trying to shore up the foundation, which seems a lot like the wrong way to do things.
So this time, I’m doing things a little differently. I’ve been working on a new project (forgive me if I’m sparse on the details, but I’ve only just started and I don’t like to share things until I’m sure they’re going to be things, if you know what I mean.) But for this project I’m working on perfecting the beginning first before I keep going with the rest of the manuscript. The reasoning behind this approach is simple. The opening is meant to draw readers in, so I figure when I get it right, the opening will make me want to keep writing.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Where the scene opens
You’ve all heard the advice, I’m sure; start in medias res, the middle of the action. But that doesn’t always mean starting in the middle of a gunfight, or even in a high point of tension. It can mean that, but it certainly doesn’t have to. What you need to consider is: where does your story start? What is the inciting incident that sets things in motion and how close can your opening get to it while still covering what the reader needs to know to be invested in your story.
It’s okay to struggle with this. It’s okay to have a few false starts, or write scenes that won’t end up in the final version of your manuscript just to get some knowledge of the backstory and the moments that lead up to where your story opens. Just as long as you are willing to let these first attempts go and focus on starting at the point that hooks your readers.
2. The opening line
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times. The first line is literally THE most important thing you write. This is your first impression. It’s your chance to engage your reader. It doesn’t need to need to be long, or complicated. In fact, it’s better if it’s not. It does, however, need to fit the style and the tone of your story and establish the other two things I’m going to talk about, the hook and the voice, right away.
You’ve been told over and over again that you have to hook your reader. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have them in a vice grip on the first line, it just means that you need to introduce some hint of mystery, some form of a question in their minds that piques their curiosity enough to keep reading.
3. The hook
I talked a bit about the hook in the last section, but now that you’ve got an amazing first line, how do you reel the reader in? The easiest way to do this is to subtly dribble out information like breadcrumbs, so your reader will follow the trail you’ve set.
If you’ve hooked your reader in your first sentence, then do the same in the second one, and so on, you’ll keep their eyes skimming along the page. This way, within a couple of paragraphs at most, you’ll have them drawn helplessly into the world and the situation you’ve created.
4. The voice
Another tough thing to master, the voice of your narrative is also crucial to the success of your manuscript. It can also work to be a great hook, drawing readers in. Your voice relies on your character. Either that of your protagonist, or of your narrator if your narrator differs from your protagonist. It’s the way you tell your story, what kind of language you use, the length and complexity of your sentences, the style, all of it. Nothing is more powerful a tool for making your story interesting than the voice it’s told in.
If you want a great example of this, I would recommend checking out Rita Monette’s Nikki Landry Swamp Legends Series, specifically the first one, Legend of Ghost Dog Island. Nikki Landry, a ten-year old girl living in the bayous of Louisiana in the 1950’s comes alive as the narrator as early as the first line. In the spirit of being helpful, here’s a link to the Amazon sample!
I’ve written the opening to my newest project at least four, if not five, times now, but I think I’ve got something great now. For your own opening, you’ll know you’ve got something to work with when you’ve mastered the four points above and can really feel the story pulling you in as much as it will pull your readers. Remember, you can always pass it by a writer’s group, or a friend with a critical eye who is willing to tell you the truth without being too soul-crushing about it. If you don’t have any of those handy, toss your first paragraph into the comments below and I’ll be happy to take a look at it for you!
And on that note, here’s mine:
The change came without warning, unless you count the rain. It pounded on the window of my battered Oldsmobile, demanding to be let in. I sighed, frustrated. So much for the Weather Network. Wrenching the rusted driver’s side door open, I was drenched in seconds. I scurried across the city parking lot, doing my damndest to avoid the worst of the puddles, though it hardly mattered now. The damage was done.