January 26, 2015

Writing Practice: Opening Lines, Paragraphs, and Pages

At a writing conference I attended several months ago, author Brady Allen shared with us how to practice writing openings and improve this skill.

Why Do We Care About Openings?  

In the writing book Hooked by Les Edgerton, a book recommended by Allen, we're told that "A tremendous number of possibly good and even brilliant novels and short stories never get read beyond the first few paragraphs or pages by agents and editors. Why? Simple: The stories don't begin in the right place. When an agent or editor encounters a poor or improper beginning, she doesn't bother to read on."  If you want your stories to be read, and especially if you want them to be published, having a solid opening is vital.

What Makes a Good Opening?

Your goal in an opening, as with much of your story, is to evoke an emotional response that hooks the reader and makes them want to keep reading.  You need the reader to experience the scene right along with the character, feeling just what the character is feeling, seeing and hearing what the character is seeing and hearing, etc.

Allen says that a good opening line has the following characteristics:

  • a character
  • in a place
  • doing something ("in medias res")
  • described in "kick-ass language" (using vivid verbs and concrete nouns)
  • and raises questions in the reader's mind

A good opening scene should successfully introduce the story problem, hook the reader, establish the rules of the story, and forecast the ending of the story.

A few examples of good opening lines:

  • A few days before Thanksgiving I get a terrific recipe from the Turkey Hotline Lady while Dyna and I make love. (What's Not to Enjoy? - Jo-Anne Michiel Watts)
  • As a boy, he had watched his mother grow bigger with the child that would become his sister. The larger her belly grew, the more repulsed he became, shrinking from her touch, afraid to touch her skin. (It's Different - Les Edgerton)
  • When the office door opened suddenly I knew the game was up. It had been a money-maker -- but it was all over.  As the cop walked in I sat back in the chair and put on a happy grin. (The Stainless Steel Rat - Harry Harrison)
  • It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. (City of Glass - Paul Auster)
  • High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (Changing Places - David Lodge)

You may find it helpful to build a notebook or computer file containing some of your favorite opening lines to use as inspiration.

How Do You Practice Openings?

The "practice" is:

  • Come up with at least ten new opening lines each week
  • Once a week (or more often), turn two of those opening lines into an opening paragraph
  • Once a month (or more often), turn one of those opening paragraphs into an opening page

If you stick with this practice as best you can, you'll improve your ability to write story openings.  You'll also build up a file you can browse through when you're feeling writer's block.  Reading through all these openings may inspire you to write the story they hint at, or something totally different.

What if you're having trouble even coming up with those opening lines?  Look in the community/neighborhood section of your local newspaper or a news web site.  If something in there strikes you as funny, interesting, or unusual, try to write a story opening based on it.

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