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Story Openings

Instruments of Truth by Deborah DeWitThe blank page faces you, whether it’s the page in your hand or the one on the screen, the question is always the same – how do you begin? Do you want to set the scene with a sweeping landscape, or launch into the action with a gunfight or duel? Will you ease the reader in with a prologue and back-story, or start with a mystery and rely on the reader’s curiosity to draw them on. There are so many ways to choose from, but which is right for your story?

The best opening is one that feels right, something that suits the story and allows a natural follow-on of the narrative without feeling contrived. Ideally you want something subtle that allows the reader to slip into the story and lose themselves in the writing. Getting this right can be tricky and aspects like genre, plot and point of view can all influence it, as well as the overall style of the author.

In fantasy writing it used to be common practice for authors to have a slow introduction to their story. It might begin with a long passage of description about a location, an event, or the history of a world. It might be something more substantial, like an opening chapter that establishes the home of the protagonist as in many archetypal farm-boy turned hero stories. Some authors even section off a piece of the novel as the prologue, often detailing the creation of the fantasy world or other important events. Every fantasy reader will know the classic introduction to The Lord of the Rings and its account of the rings of power:

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”

And afterwards, when the story officially starts, there is the slow introduction of Bilbo Baggins’ history and of his coming party. These sorts of openings allow the reader to ease into what may be a highly complex world, letting the author set up all the necessary plot information so they can begin the story. This method is often used when writing in an omniscient POV (point of view) as the narrative style fits with the “wide angle” perspective, and allows a natural flow from the passages of information to the more focused sections on characters and plot. This kind of opening can allow the author to evoke a sense of majesty and history in their work, setting up an epic tale. However, this sort of info dump can also reduce the pace and make for a slow opening.

Disturber of the Peace by BenWootten

Other writers might prefer to launch right into the action and drop the reader in the middle of a fast paced fight scene or something similar. The immediacy of the moment can be used to draw the reader into the story, and while this means a lack of detail early on, as long as it is justified by the narrative context the reader will often be content to hold their questions about the world in abeyance until the pace slows and there is the opportunity for explanation. A typical opening of this sort will contain an immediate threat or source of danger, so that from the start the reader is thrust into events:

“The blade whistled as it came at his face. Jack twisted to parry and sparks exploded from the two swords. Ducking, he jabbed low at the man in the scarf but his opponent jumped back out of reach. Before Jack could recover the man was on him again.”

Snow Fight by chosac (detail)Already the reader is in a fight with deadly stakes, there is no external description because the character isn’t focused on that. The writing is quick, with short sentences. It leads on with impending peril to the character. This opening works to draw interest by conflict and tension, the reader doesn’t even know if the viewpoint character is a good guy or not, but they can still care about the outcome. One of the objectives of this type of opening is also to prompt active questions from the reader; who is the man in the scarf, why are they fighting? If you can evoke the reader’s curiosity then the battle is half won. Opening this way allows the author to get stuck in with the story and get their plot moving, but at some point they will need to slow down and explain some key details, abeyance can only last so long.

This opening works well with the third person POV, it lets the author instantly ground the narrative into their character without any lengthy introductions and gives the reader the opportunity to build a picture of the character from their observations. While this style may not feel like an “official opening,” I think it was Terry Brooks who said “unless you start at the beginning with the creation of the world, you’re coming into the middle of the story, you should make sure you enter at an exciting part.” It’s a rather obvious idea but something we often forget while writing, so why not make your opening as interesting as possible and choose the opportune moment in the story to begin.

There are other less structurally different ways to write a good opening. It can require something as simple as a good “hook” line that draws the reader’s interest and makes them want to continue on. It could be something dramatic, sinister, or just plain weird, so long as it piques the reader’s interest. Check out some of the opening lines from the Perfect Beginnings article on FF.

Dialogue can make a great opening for a story as well, it can offer a variety of options for a beginning.

“I assure you it’s perfectly safe.”
“That’s what you said last time, look what happened to Brandon.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s a vegetable!”
“I’d say it was an improvement.”

Even without any description the reader can quickly get a sense of the situation without paragraphs of explanation. A few lines of dialogue can impart plot information, help to set the scene, as well as giving an impression of the characters. In the section above I bet you can already picture the exchange, perhaps an unwilling patient and a sarcastic doctor, readying for some dangerous operation or procedure. Again it can serve to raise active questions, what is the procedure, and what did happen to Brandon? These aspects can all work together to hook the reader.

Harry Dresden by thegryphThe need for answers is often all it takes to draw the reader in. Detective stories or other fiction that focuses on mystery will often follow an established arc. First there is the strange occurrence, a half glimpsed event with maybe a few hints, then the author introduces the central characters and sets them up to find out what happened, and the plot develops. Curiosity may be unhealthy for cats, but it’s a common trait of a reader, and as long as you can create a suitably tantalising mystery scene to open with it will pull them in.

Opening with a well-crafted narrative voice can also hook a potential reader. A good narrative voice can help to liven up even a lacklustre tale, and it will help the reader to engage with the story if they enjoy the style of the writing.

“As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk.”

Writing is by BeginteThe sentence above has a strong personality to the writing. From only a few words the reader can already begin to picture the character and get a feel for the type of story. It sounds like the words of a cocky hero type, embroiled in yet another adventure, half serious, half humor. It’s the sort of tone that makes you want to read on, and is perhaps the most difficult to establish in a brief opening, but if the right voice can be found and maintained it can make the whole novel.

There are an endless variety of ways to start a story, ideas limited only by the imagination of the author. You could begin with the ponderings of a door handle the hero clasps as he enters the villain’s lair, “this one won’t last long.” Or start with a fiscal report on the economic effects of dragon attacks. Maybe your opening is even stranger, even more experimental, great! Nothing is set in stone when you begin, so feel free to try different approaches. Make it something the reader can’t ignore.

Title image by Michel François.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Seán says:

    Loved the article, very well done. Just a quick question, is the line of text about what happened last time (Brandon being turned into a vegetable) from a book? And if so, which one?

  2. Avatar Randi says:

    I’ve read that a big pet peeve among agents & editors is opening a novel (or even just a chapter) with unattributed dialogue. They take it as a sign of an amateur.

    So perhaps we should put in a caveat that if you open with dialogue — you should attribute it, or immediately provide context in some other way. Especially with something like “What do you mean?” … It’s not easy to visualize, since it could refer to anything at all, and it’s disorienting in a way that could make a reader hostile, instead of drawing her in.

    (That said, I liked your breakdown of different opening strategies, and what effect you can achieve with each one. A very useful way to think of it.)

    • Avatar Randi says:

      Oops! Left a mistake in here.

      “What do you mean?” isn’t the line I mean to point out, since it’s in the context of a larger exchange. But I do mean to say that the entire dialogue can’t be visualized. Who’s talking? What are they doing? Many readers will let you get away with it, but it does have a distancing effect.

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