July 20, 2015

How to Write a Good Story Opening, Part 3

In the first part of this series, we looked at what makes a good opening.  In the second part, we talked about how to learn to write opening sentences by studying good examples you encounter.  In this installment, we'll look at how to review and strengthen your story opening and suggest some books you can read to learn even more.

Revising Your Opening

You need a strong opening to ensure that agents, editors, and readers will you’re your story a fair chance.  Once you’ve written your opening, the following suggestions will help you tighten up the prose and improve it:
  • Using the word processor's find function, locate or highlight the following words to see if they signify the problems indicated here (I created a Microsoft Word macro that highlights these in my work):
    • words the end in “ly” (these are often adverbs and adjectives which signify the need for stronger nouns and verbs, or can be eliminated entirely)
    • words that end in “ing”, and “ion” (these often appear as the ending syllable in long words like “intoxication” which would be better to write as “drunk”)
    • of (Phrases like "he stormed out of the room" can be rewritten as "he stormed from the room" in order to make it clearer and more concise)
    • that (Change "She thought that he might have a problem" to "She thought he might have a problem" or "She feared he had a problem")
    • said (Eliminating this word as much as possible will strengthen your fiction.  Avoid using euphemisms like "articulated", "interjected", etc.,too.)
    • was/were ("Fred was making a martini." isn't as strong as "Fred mixed a martini.")
    • by (When used in a phrase like "She was struck by a bus" it slows down the action versus "A bus hit her.")
    • his/her (when used in phrases like "his car was fast" you can make it strong with a phrase like "he had a fast car")
    • very (often this implies that the following word or words should be replaced with something stronger, for instance "the book was very old" might be rewritten to "the book was ancient" or "she picked the book up carefully, afraid it would crumble to dust in her hands")
    • about (when used in a phrase like "there were about ten people here" it's vague, and you're better off using an exact count unless there's no way your character would know)
    • And/But (sentences that start with these words sound pompous, and unless they're part of a character's speech pattern, they should be eliminated)
    • like (this will draw your attention to similes that can be removed or replaced with clearer language)
    • felt, feel, hear, heard, smell, saw, taste, touch (These words can filter the reader's sensory experience through a character, distancing the reader from it.  Instead of "she felt the rough wooden surface" you can say "The wooden surface was rough" to eliminate the filter and bring the sensory experience closer to the reader.)
    • as (When used in phrases like "nutty as a fruitcake" ask yourself if there is a better word or phrase you can use that doesn't include "as" -- like "eccentric" or "insane")
  • If you're unsure about any facts in your opening, research them.
  • Look for cliches and eliminate them unless they're part of a character's unique speech pattern.
  • Make a list of all the adjectives and adverbs in your opening.  Consider whether these can be eliminated, or whether they signify the need for a stronger noun or verb.  If the adjective or adverb is needed, is there a more unusual or stronger one you can use?
  • Look for any unnecessary words or phrases.  Eliminate them or replace them with stronger and more-descriptive words.
  • Look for any long sentences and see if you can break them apart or simplify them.
  • Look for any redundant phrases or words and replace or eliminate them.
  • Look for long dialogue exchanges without any other text breaking them up (i.e., no breaks in the dialogue like "Margaret walked over and opened the window" or "He took another bite of spaghetti.).  This is sometimes referred to as a "white room problem".
  • Make sure your dialogue reflects the character speaking it.  We wouldn't expect a poorly educated man from a rural area to say "Yes, I suspect to find an appropriate solution presently."  He'd more likely say "Yep, I'll figure it out.")
  • Examine the length of your sentences and ensure that it varies, mixing shorter and longer sentences within the same paragraph where appropriate.
  • Make sure you're showing the characters' thoughts, actions, and reactions to story events.
  • Read the work aloud and be alert for anything that is hard to speak or that doesn't sound right when you say it.
  • Have someone else you trust read the text and get their feedback.

Your opening should now be much stronger.

Reading List

There is a lot more to learn about story openings than I've covered in this series.  Below are some of the resources I recommend if you are ready to dig in deeper:

The above links to go the Amazon.com web page where you can buy the books listed.

1 comment:

  1. It is very important to start good, it's even more important to leave a good footprint. I mean, book review.
    From that review depends what will be reaction of the majority of your audience ('cause majority trust "clever reviews")


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