Wednesday, December 16, 2009



They’re a bitch. There’s no doubt about that. We as writers agonize over openings. For good reason, as our first words are the first impression we give to the reader. As the saying goes, you’ve only got one shot at making a first impression.

Agents, editors, and readers are going to read your work from word one and, based on your opening, decide whether your story is worth reading. Readers, I think, are probably the most kind. They will usually give you the benefit of a couple of pages before they put you down. Not so for agents and editors. If you want a peak at the tedium that is reading through opening pages, take a look at Nathan Bransford’s opening paragraph contest. He received about 2600 entries, which is pretty on par with what many agents see in a month, sometimes in a week. Could you read through all of that? The thought of it makes my eyes cross.

So how to stick out from that crowd? And more importantly, how do you create that opening that is perfect for YOUR book.

Now, I realize a lot has been said on perfecting your opening. Advice goes that it should be in media res, or in the middle of the action. Start with a bang not a drizzle, introduce characters not scenery, etc.

The problem being for a lot of openings is that this idea of starting with action, in media res, is taken too literally. We get lines on blood shooting out, a murder in place, some chick hanging off a cliff, or mid-conversation between two people. And no one cares because the reader does not yet know these characters. There is no vested interest in what happens to them. Conversely, there are openings in which we are treated to a whole lot of babble and info dumps in which nothing happens. I call them the Holden Caulfield rambles, deep reflections of pondering angst. (g) They seem especially prevalent in literary works. And believe me, I’ve been way guilty of the Holden Caulfield openings. (g)

But we know all this. So why is it so damn hard to get that opening right?

I’ll confess here that openings really tied me in knots for a long time. And out of all of us here, Claire is probably the best at openings (go read her opening to Behind the Lines; it is amazing). But I’ve found a technique that has really helped me and I wanted to share it with you.

You’re telling a story. So tell it. In the simplest terms.

One good tip is that the story starts on the day when the person’s life is altered by such and such events. Good plan, save a lot of us will start that story at the wrong point. For instance, we start at the point where the event occurs.

Let’s say DH comes home tonight and at dinner, I say,

“I got mugged.”

He’s immediately going to say, “What?! How! Are you okay? What were you doing?”

(Why? Because we have a natural need to know how some big event went down, not just the event itself. )

To which I’m going to say, “Well, I went to the bank today –you know you forgot to deposit your check yesterday and we almost bounced three bills….”


“Hmm…I’m sure you are –again! Anyway, the bank covered it. As I was saying, I went to the outside ATM because it was lunchtime and the bank was full. There I was trying to remember my pin number.”

Snort from husband.

And” glare,this guy walks up to me….” Blah. Blah…

Do you see my point? I can’t start my story with the guy walking up to me. That leaves the listener (reader) confused, slightly irritated. Nor can I start with getting up for breakfast, reading my emails, pondering life and why my husband keeps forgetting to deposit his check, and why doesn’t he get direct deposit like a normal person? And so on.

How did I get in the situation to be mugged? That is the natural starting point to my story. We know how to start a story better than we think. We do it all the time. We’ve been telling each other stories throughout human history. We have conditioned ourselves to want a build up. The key is to find the natural point in which to start that build up.

I.e. Alice did not simply fall down the rabbit hole, Dorothy didn’t immediately get sucked into a tornado. Their stories started just before that point. We the readers were grounded in their lives, given a glimpse of Alice’s boredom and forced propriety; Dorothy’s gray listless Kansas life.

So try it yourself. Write a paragraph or two telling, yes TELLING, what your story is about.

My story is about a young girl who, in a fit of boredom, curiosity, and slight rebellion, follows a little white rabbit down a hole and ends up in a world where everything is upside down and down side up. To get back home she must learn to adjust to this crazy thinking and learn to govern her own wits.

Now, once you’ve got that part down. Write the whole of your main character’s day. From the time they wake up, to the time the action/event occurs. Write it as if you were starting your actual book:

Alice awoke to the same view every day, the painted clouds of a grey London sky upon her nursery room ceiling. Suppressing a sigh, she tossed back her covers, got out of bed and padded across the cool floorboards toward the door that connected the nursery to her nanny's rooms. Quietly, she peaked through the keyhole, hoping to discover if Nanny Fran had arisen. If not, she might have ten perhaps twenty minutes of uninterrupted play. “Spying again, Alice.” She jumped at the strict tones of Nanny Fran coming from behind her…

This part may -or may not- appear interesting. But it is a false start –a little trick we the writer play on ourselves. We feel that we ought to give a nice long background of the character. Too long.

Imagine it, going through the ins and outs of Alice getting dressed, eating her milk and bread, doing her lessons, getting invited by her sister to go outside with her sister, making daisy chain, become disgruntled by books without words, seeing a white rabbit with a suit on… ho! It has suddenly become a bit more interesting.

As for the overkill of in media res, what if it started like this?

“I’m late, I’m late.” The white rabbit in the red waistcoat pulled out a pocket watch and glanced at it again. “Oh, I’m late!” He ran off. Alice, blinked in surprise and followed…

Sure, there is a strange occurrence, and, yes, I’d want to know why there is a talking rabbit in a waistcoat, who is also consulting a pocket watch, but I’m also confused. Where is this? Who is Alice? Are they in a fantasy world where rabbits always go around dressed and talking? I find myself too tense. And the writer then has the problem of convincing me that this isn’t a normal occurrence for Alice by restoring to what? Backstory. The writer now has to somehow have Alice follow the rabbit into this world, AND make us understand that this is going to by quite strange for her. A lot of work, no?

So, if Alice were to tell it, where would she start? By telling us that she was outside with her sister, quite bored and sullen. Her sister was reading one of those dull books with only words, which really, she couldn’t quite see the point in that! When what did she spy but a talking white rabbit in a waistcoat, looking at a pocket watch. How very curious! Well naturally she had to follow something like that!

And thus we have a grounding of Alice’s character, how her days usually go, and then the strange event that pulls us in right along with her. More importantly, this makes sense from the CHARACTER’S point of view. This is where the character finds her day becoming interesting as well.

By writing the whole of your character’s day, you will find that a natural start does occur. And that is where you start your opening. Easier said than done, obviously, but try it. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.


  1. Kristen,

    Now you have me thinking all of my openings suck! Do I give too little...too I starting at the right place??!? Bah. Will not look at them when I'm this high strung. WILL NOT. (g)


  2. Ah, this is just what I need. I have at least four possible openings for my book .. well, two of them I have more or less discounted ( I really love one of them, but it's just too far removed in time from the rest of the book, so it's out she goes) and I've been umming and ahhing over which of the remaining two will make the cut ... this just might make that decision a little clearer. Thanks! :-)

  3. Yes! This is exactly what I just did with the Rose story! I started the story over the summer in a little notebook (for once I actually finished the notebook – I didn’t start typing up the scenes and scrap the rest of the notebook, or get bored by how tattered the pages were becoming and switch to a new book halfway through).
    Then along came Nathan’s contest.
    I looked at the first scene in the book. Boring! I looked at the second scene. Really boring! But the third one was just right That’s the one I used for the October X; it starts right at the turning point, when Rose’s world begins to change. All that other stuff turned out to be backstory; interesting for me, but completely lame as an opening. Claire, you mentioned the gangplank idea that Jo or Diana had; it’s spot on! I’ve removed the gangplank of the first few scenes and finally launched the dinghy or dory or whatever the story has yet to be. (Sorry, I think my brain is numb from the cold this morning; it’s acting silly...)