Monday, July 18, 2011

In the Beginning

In the beginning…there was a blank page, and thus the opening chapter was born.

Every story has one. Every story needs a good one. Yes, we’re talking about openings. We writers know the necessity of a killer opening. It’s what hooks an agent, editor, or reader into wanting more.

I’ve done a piece on openings before –mainly on where you should start your story. But I think the discussion can be expanded, because not only is important to learn where one should open at story, one should understand just what IS the function of an opening chapter.

Claire did an excellent post on derivatives, the focus being that there are basically seven main types of stories. We, as a culture, through generations of storytelling, have learned to recognize these story archetypes, and thus have an understanding of what is to come when we recognize one. This is actually a good thing. As a readers, by having a feel for the story structure to come, we also know if it something we want to read, we can feel the anticipation of watching it unfold and wondering how the hero/heroine will over come certain obstacles.

NOT knowing leaves us confused and, often times, irritated. It may seem strange, but we are creatures of habit, pattern. We like to know what we are in for, not the whole story, mind, but the TYPE of story, the basic pathway. Tropes are like old friends. We like seeing them. We like knowing where we are headed.

But let’s take it further. There is a theory that a good opening chapter is like a microcosm for the whole of the book. So then, in reading an opening, you have the all the answers. The set up, the conflict, the main character’s issue that she must overcome all there in the beginning.

For example, let's use a familiar story (and I’m using a film because there is a greater chance more of you have seen it than if I picked a book). Star Wars.

Star Wars opens thusly: A princess is in trouble. The Imperial forces have invaded her ship, including the main villain. She sends a distress message on a droid out into space. A young farmer is bored with his life, he wants more, he wants adventure. He finds the droid. The droid takes him to an old hermit who hides a secret and will give the boy knowledge. The farmer’s family is killed, and now he must join the hermit on the adventure of a lifetime.

There, in the opening you have the whole of the story. You learn the stakes, meet the main players, and know what conflicts will arise. Does it spoil it for you? No. It makes you want to see how it will all play out.

But to go even further –because I think it needs to.

For me, a good opening absolutely lets you know what TYPE of story you are in for. To go back to Star Wars. When you see this opening, you know that you are going to watch a hero’s journey. This is extremely important, because if you don’t want to submerge yourself in that particular type of story, best you know it now.

Letting the reader/watcher understand what type of story you plan to tell isn’t giving anything away. It is falling back onto the basic tradition of storytelling. We expect certain tropes. Indeed, knowing doesn’t dampen our excitement, it heightens it.

A good opening should make certain things clear. Is this going to be a love story? An adventure? A mystery, thriller, quest, coming of age, what? Of course stories can have more than one trope, but there ought to be a main trope that guides us along.

Just as a good pitch will tell an agent/editor what they can expect with the story, so to does the opening.

The challenge then is for you to look at your opening chapter. Have you set us up for the journey? Have you cleverly woven in your main players? Main conflict? Main desire of your hero/heroine? We need to see a glimpse of this or we lose interest. These are the things that make us care about a story. If these things aren't there, it is a good indicator that you haven’t started in the right place.

Have you shown us what type of story you are taking us on? If we don’t know, we feel lost. Deep down, we expect and want to know what trope we are entering. Not knowing makes most readers feel disoriented. And that snaps a person out of the narrative quicker than anything else.

I often say that, as the writer, we are master manipulators. Every word we put on the page, every choice we make must have a purpose. Yes, you want to tell a story that flows from your heart and soul, but it is your job to tell it in the best way you can. You need to be aware of the reader in as much as you need to take control of your story. To do that, I think you need to understand what you are trying to accomplish with the story.

So think of the opening as the whole of you story –the mini version.


  1. Kristen --

    I don't usually comment on blog posts but this one is amazing.

    I found myself inserting "query pitch" everywhere you said "opening." What I ended up with was the ultimate primer on how to write the dreaded query.

    Thank you!!


  2. Prill -- I'm glad you liked it. Certainly, the same goes for the query pitch. In fact, for me, a good query does precisely this.

  3. Yes! In fact, I really like the book THE FIRST FIVE PAGES because it helps writers focus their openings like this.

  4. Precie-- I have to check that book out.

    BTW, if you're reading this, I'm going over the copyedits for FIRELIGHT (which you know as West Club Moon) I've thanked you in the acks as "Precie Schroyer." Let me know if you want any changes now, or forever hold your peace. :D

  5. You always manage to post the best advice on the exact topic I need, right at the exact moment I need it. Brilliant :)

    Thanks as usual for your clarity on this- it's an area that's so confusing, yet it should be so simple. I love that you manage to bring the simple back.

  6. Great post Kristen. I'm going to go back and look at my opening *again* to see if I'm doing the right thing.
    Must think like master manipulator...

  7. I've also read somewhere (might have been in Robert McKee's STORY) a description of openings as setting up the questions that the final few chapters must answer ...

    And you're right: pulling back to take a big picture view of your opening - indeed, your whole story - in this way is so very necessary.

    Excellent post, Kristen!

  8. Kristen,

    Confession time: I don't have an opening. Everything you've said is true and I've heard it before and I've built it into a huge stumbling block to the point where I don't know if I can write it. Just call me chicken. :P

  9. Kristen---I just one saw your comment on your Acks! Omg! First, yes, that's totally the correct spelling of my name. Second, O.M.G. I'm touched that you would include me in your Acks, and I can't wait to read the pub bed version.