July 13, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 2

In last week's post, we looked at what makes a good opening.  This week, we'll look at how you can inspire yourself to write good openings and even how to practice so you get better at writing them (while also creating a weapon against writer's block).

Inspiration by Example

Advertising copywriters often keep what they refer to as a "swipe file."  This is a collection of the most effective headlines, phrases, and copy they've encountered.  These samples become models they can follow to write their own copy.  I believe fiction writers should accumulate swipe files of their own, especially for opening lines.

Here are some examples from my file:
  • It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression "As pretty as an airport." -- Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
  • I woke up in bed with a man and a cat.  The man was a stranger; the cat was not. -- Robert A. Heinlein, To Sail Beyond the Sunset
  • "I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get." "That's what you said about the brother." -- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
  • Millicent Mannings Hollander could not stop looking at evil.-- James Scott Bell, Deadlock
  • Though Robin Ellacott's twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived. -- Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo's Calling
  • She'd drunk way too much. She was an idiot.  Why had she, Delsey Freestone, a reasonably intelligent twenty-five-year-old supposed adult, swan-dived into those last two margaritas? -- Catherine Coulter, Bomb Shell
  • On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm.  His wife flew to the bow of the boat and tossed her breakfast burritos. -- Carl Hiassen, Bad Monkey
  • On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.  -- Mitch Albom, The First Phone Call from Heaven
  • Black ice coated earth frozen hard by night temperatures that had dropped below freezing, a thin skein of slickness that challenged the grip of his toughened-rawhide boot soles. Yet the Gray Man stepped with grace and ease across the treacherous smoothness, not oblivious to the danger so much as accustomed to it. -- Terry Brooks, Bearers of the Black Staff
  • The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault. -- Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
  • Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he'd never before imagined, Dylan O'Connor left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake. -- Dean Koontz, By the Light of the Moon
  • The scene and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  Then the soul-erosion produced by high-gambling - a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension - becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. -- Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
  • The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03am, eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1. The term was a misnomer, of course, but within ten hours of the event, most of the scientists capable of pointing this out were either dead or insane. -- Stephen King, Cell
  • For some time now they had been suspicious of him. Spies had monitored his movements, reporting to the priests, and in the tribal councils his advice against going to war with those beyond the bend had been ignored. -- James A. Michener, Chesapeake
How do you use a collection like this?  Treat each one as an example of a technique to learn.  Read the example and ask "What makes this line memorable, and how did the author do it?"  When you understand that, try writing a similar sentence using your characters, settings, and plot points.  (You should not plagiarize the author's work, however.  The point is to learn the technique, not steal the words.)

For example, consider the opening line from Larry Niven's Ringworld:
In the nighttime heart of Beirut, in one of a row of general-address transfer booths, Louis Wu flicked into reality.
Niven took an event that is seemingly impossible to us (a person "flicking into reality") and made it seem like an ordinary event in the world of the story (by referencing "a row of general-address transfer booths" which presumably exist for the purpose).  We are left wondering who Louis Wu is, how he accomplished what he's just done, why he's in Beirut, and what exactly those booths are.  This will keep us reading for at least a little while longer.  (Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is practically a textbook for repeatedly hooking a reader.)

To achieve the same effect, I need to take something from my story world that would seem impossible or unusual to a modern reader and make it appear to be part of my characters' ordinary world.

Here's how I used Niven's technique, without stealing his setting, characters, or story plot:
Alice Monroe, like everyone else on the streets around her, was running home as hard as she could.  In eight minutes, the Night Watch robots would begin vaporizing anyone breaking curfew.
I've taken the unusual idea (to someone in our world) of robots violently enforcing a curfew and made it completely ordinary to my character (by showing she's aware of it and knows when it will occur). I also show that it's common knowledge in the story world by showing others running home also.  A reader should wonder why there's such a curfew, why there are robots enforcing it, why vaporization is considered an acceptable punishment, how far Alice has to go to be home, and so on.  It should keep them reading.  I haven't stolen anything from Niven's work.  I'm not showing people popping into existence, not setting my story in Beirut at night, etc.  All I've taken from Niven is the technique he used.

Opening Practice

One of the best pieces of writing advice I've encountered came from a workshop taught by author Brady Allen.  I've discussed it before in more detail before.  Allen suggested that you set aside time every day, week, and month to practice openings.  The practice has two goals:  Improve your skill at writing openings.  Provide you with a source of material to help eliminate writer's block.  

The practice is simple and quick:

  • Each day, or as often as you can, write at least one opening line for a potential story.
  • Once a week, look over all the opening lines you’ve written.  Find one that resonates with you, and turn it into an opening paragraph.
  • Once a month, look at those opening paragraphs and expand one into an opening page or opening scene for a story.
That's it.  The next time you aren't sure what to write, pull out that list of opening lines, paragraphs, and pages.  It's likely that something there will motivate you to write a story.

If you find yourself getting stuck trying to do the practice, have a look at the swipe file mentioned earlier.  Try to write a line that mimics one of the examples without plagiarizing it.

Coming Up in Part 3

In Part 3 of this series, we'll look at how to revise your opening to improve it and provide some resources to learn more.

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