July 6, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 1

A good writer never assumes they’ve mastered every aspect of writing.  As with any other activity, someone is better at it than we are.  When it comes to story openings, I still have a lot to learn.  For that reason, I continue to research and practice story openings.  Here’s what I've learned.

When agents, editors, and readers pick up your short story or novel, your opening paragraphs will get the most attention.  If you don't hook them quickly, they'll put your story down and move on.  

What Makes a Good Story Opening?

A good story opening should:
  • Leave an impression on the reader in the first sentence
  • Introduce the main character(s) and build reader empathy toward them by showing the character's humanity (both their good qualities and their flaws)
  • Show the characters in their ordinary world, and foreshadow a change or disturbance.  This can be done many ways, including:
    • The character finds that something is more difficult than expected.
    • The character learns something new and upsetting.
    • The character arrives in an unfamiliar place.
    • The character meets someone who impacts her in some way.
    • Something happens in the character’s life, like losing a job, experiencing a car crash, a fight with a friend or lover, etc.
    • Hint that a disturbance is coming, as in “She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was seeing Fred for the last time.”
  • Raise questions in the mind of the reader to keep them reading
  • Give the character an "external goal" they are motivated to achieve, even if that goal isn't the ultimate goal they'll achieve during the story
  • Show how the goal is important to the character and why they're motivated to achieve it
  • Give enough details on the setting to help the reader visualize the story world, but no more
  • Deliver the minimum amount of backstory necessary for the reader to appreciate what is going on in the opening
  • Change something for the character by the end
Everything in the opening should be moving the story toward a moment of change in the character's life.  It can be helpful to ask questions like these as you brainstorm, write, and review your opening:
  • Why is this character in my opening, and is the character's presence necessary ?
  • Where is the opening taking place, and why is this setting important?
  • What minimum details do I need to include about the setting in the opening to ensure that the reader is grounded in it?
  • What details do I need to share about the characters in the scene, and is it necessary to share those details right now (or can I wait until a later scene where they're more relevant)?
  • Why should the reader care about this character and the character's future?
  • What questions am I creating in the reader's mind?   Will these keep the reader turning pages?
  • What emotional stakes are raised in the opening that reflect the rest of the story?  
  • What good and bad qualities of the characters are important to show at this time?
  • Is there some tense situation or exchange of dialogue that could happen here?  If so, is there anything I can do to increase the tension?
When you're ready to revise the opening:
  • Is all of the backstory relevant to the scene it appears in?
  • Are the setting descriptions as concise and relevant as possible?
  • Is any of the dialogue "pointless chatter" that can be removed (e.g, “Hi Tom!”)?
  • Are any of the characters' thoughts acting as "info dumps"? 
  • If a character is sharing critical thoughts, introspection, and past memories, are these interwoven with action?
  • Are any adjectives or adverbs in the opening overused? 
  • Are the nouns and verbs as strong as they could be?
It's been said that a writer should spend proportionally more time on the story’s opening than on most other parts of the story.  

Something that can be helpful is to write and rewrite the opening scene several times.  Play around with different points of view, narrative styles, settings, etc.  One of these may feel more "right" than the others.  If that version of the opening grabs your interest, it will probably do the same for your readers.

Next week, in Part Two, we'll look at how to study and practice opening sentences.

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