October 23, 2017, 10:43:53 AM

Author Topic: What makes a good opening?  (Read 916 times)

Offline Steve Harrison

Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #15 on: October 11, 2017, 12:24:04 PM »
In my novels I try to connect with the reader in some kind of 'that-could-be-me' way as quickly as possible, which could be a character in an action scene questioning a decision, or simply a character who is bored. Some human element pretty much everyone can identify with.

I don't think readers pick up a book without knowing a little about it and being interested, so the writer has time to ease them into it. I never worry about grabbing them with a dynamite first sentence, paragraph or page. They actually want to like my writing or they wouldn't have picked up the book.

And as a reader, I give a novel between 50 and 100 pages to grab me.

Offline Lanko

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #16 on: October 11, 2017, 02:43:18 PM »
I used to stress a lot about this, and I still do find openings the worst part of a story to write, but nowadays I think the whole system is overthought.

The reason, in my mind, that fist 50 pages is given such clout is because that's likely the most an agent/publisher will read (they likely won't even do that these days). Therefore, you're not selling your book to readers in those pages, you're selling it to that agent/publishers tastes, so unless you have an intimate understanding of what those tastes are it's impossible to craft that 'perfect beginning'.

Just reading over the responses here, you can already see that it's down to personal taste. I found Nora's response the most interesting, because by all definitions of how to open a book her example does none of it. The whole paragraph is a monologue of the author giving their view of the world, with no mention of a character to hook onto, an issue, a plot--all the things 'experts' claim should be in the first sentence... okay?. Yet this was enough to inspire her in her own style and voice. The very first line mesmerised her. The first line is 'Grass!', so that's all it takes.

For me personally, I've never been grabbed by any book in the first page, chapter, or even half. It normally takes at least the first half to have any chance of grasping the full context of the plot or characters and whether I like it or not. The moments that resonate and get remembered are usually (if done right) the climaxes at the end.

In any case, I'm willing to wager that, for the majority if they're truly honest, whether they'll read a book is based not on randomly picking it up and skimming the first ten pages, but by word of mouth/advertising selling the full story/author on them, in which case they'll stick with it to the end regardless of the opening unless the writing is that horrendous. And that's what it really boils down to. Is the writing good, and as such, can you trust the author to deliver you a cohesive engaging plot and characters? That's something you certainly can judge in the first page, and if that isn't being achieved on the scene level then why would you expect it to be so at the novel stage?

I agree how differently an agent and a reader see it. I read books that I absolutely loathed the beginning but kept going and loved the rest and others with fabulous beginnings that went downhill hard later.
So far I never found a book that made me quit after ~20 pages or after the first four chapters.

An author receives more leeway from a reader simply for the fact that us, as readers, want so badly to be entertained and distracted. So even if the beginning isn't fantastic or mind-blowing, we still assume sooner or later that what we read will lead to something satisfying and exciting.

An agent, for good or bad, normally has tons of requests and can't have that luxury.

And then the problem starts. Yes, a reader gives you more leeway, but to get to the reader you need first to get through the agent.
And then the whole discussion about beginnings that swarm most discussions in writing sites/forums/books starts, with everyone trying to nail what will hook an agent/publisher to actually read the rest of their amazing manuscript.
In self-publishing this also matters. As much as it's changing, there's still stigma attached to it, and perhaps in here it matters more than in trad, as you need to show pretty quickly that this book was indeed edited, proofread and that the author appears to know how to tell a story and is in self-pub by choice not because everyone rejected it for a decade.

I myself question how effective judging the entire work with just the first 3-5 pages or 3-5 chapters really is, specially considering the amount of extremely successful works that were most likely rejected using this method... but they (agents and publishers) have been at it for years or decades and they say most of the time it really works, so...

And there are beginnings that are off-putting and others that really hook you, so even if we do get more leeway from readers, it doesn't hurt to put more emphasis on the importance of the beginning. Even if you do not plan to mind blow the reader with it, at least to not put them off. But of course, if the rest of the story does, I agree it won't really matter.
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Offline MammaMamae

Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #17 on: October 11, 2017, 03:07:50 PM »
For me personally - strong narrative voice.

Period.  There are certain writers whose prose I would read if it were just 5 pages of description of the grass growing.  There are others who I can't get past the first page no matter how much I want to like book.

Generally, for an opening to engage me and be the former, it needs:

a) A narrator.  That narrator can be subtle and barely there or obvious, but there needs to be one.  I generally will not get past the first page of something written in super close 3rd, unless the writer is amazingly dynamic.

b) Paragraphs and varying sentence structure.  The first thing I do when I open a book is flip to see if there are some solid blocks of writing that move along.  I love a good paragraph.  I see if the sentence structure is engaging.  If there are no paragraphs longer than 3 sentences in the first 3 pages it probably isn't for me. 
 
c) Clarity and narration.  A writer who is too afraid of "telling" and varying narrative distance ends up obfuscating, substituting bodily sensations for accurate feeling and internal thought, and dragging out boring stuff into long scenes that I end up skipping.  So many writers have forgotten how to NARRATE and embrace the flexibility of time and distance in fiction.  "Show don't tell" does not mean "don't narrate".  It means to be precise and specific with language.  An opening scene that is nothing but a lot of in the moment drama and action without any narrative or engaging prose will usually have me checking out.

A few times I have seen a writer throw in an "action scene" to start, and then 5 or 6 pages in you get an actual bit of narration to orient the reader.  This annoys me.  I skim the throwaway scene that was meant to artificially "hook" me and go to where the story begins.

Once I can get into a writing style, then what engages me is an interesting character and world.  I don't need a hook or the major novel problem right away.  Just have what is happening be interesting and well written.

I know a lot of this goes against the advice typically given to new writers, but honestly, I have picked up so many debut fantasy novels lately that I was REALLY excited about because of their setting or blurb, and then I couldn't get more than 2 pages into them because they were all written in the exact same "3rd limited, all scene, all drama, no paragraphs longer than 3 sentences" style that I think so many new writers are told is mandatory to get published.  But it's an immediate dealbreaker for me as a reader.

Examples of openings I LOVE are:

The Once and Future King
The Hobbit and LOTR
The Lies of Locke Lamora
The Name of the Wind
The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao
Moonglow and The Adventures of Kavelier and Clay

Offline Skip

Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #18 on: October 11, 2017, 05:04:08 PM »
I agree about the authorial voice, and about some sort of hook.

When I pick up a book, I'm mostly sensitive to things that are going to make me say no. One key element is: do I trust this author? The writing has to be competent. This goes beyond grammar and word choice, though those must be good, to how setting and character are handled. I'm going to be with this author for the length of a story and I need to believe I'm not going to be let down. I can usually tell that in the first chapter or two; in the sad cases I can tell within a couple of pages. But if I feel I am in good hands, I'm willing to go most anywhere--fast or slow pace, deep world-building or not, POV shifts, any of it, if I trust the author.

How to do that? Write well. Avoid being clumsy. There are so many ways to go wrong, I can't really be any more specific than that. The writing doesn't have to be brilliant; it simply needs to be competent.

Then the hook. Other posts in the thread show in how many different ways this can be set, and it's going to differ from one reader to the next, so there absolutely is no universal rule here.

For myself, I want to feel *something* by ... oh, I dunno, let's say the third chapter or so. A better author can carry me further. What constitutes "better" is personal, so again no universal rule. Your aim, though, is to make the reader *feel* something. It often is about the character, but it can also be about the plot (thrillers and mysteries, e.g.), or even about the setting itself  (J.G. Ballard's novels come to mind). I've read a few books where the writing itself was so strong I made it through the whole book without really caring about the characters (Saul Bellow was one), but that's rare, and you'd better be dazzling.

How do you make the reader care? There have been suggestions here and writing guides will give still more. I don't know how to use any of them, except to be aware of them as tips. When it comes to my own writing, though, I come back to this: I have to please myself first. And that means *I* have to care. Within the first fifty pages I need to have at least one scene that hooks me.

I have a devil of a time with beginnings. It always seems that I could start the story *here* but also *there* and really could be over *here* as well. Augh! The bit about caring, though, has helped me. Sure I could start at point A or B or C, and I usually have to write them as if they were beginnings because while I can write a mean outline, I never seem able to follow it. When I've written them, though, I'll find that one of them tugs at the heartstrings in some way. That one almost always winds up being Chapter One or Two.

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #19 on: October 11, 2017, 05:59:18 PM »
In any case, I'm willing to wager that, for the majority if they're truly honest, whether they'll read a book is based not on randomly picking it up and skimming the first ten pages, but by word of mouth/advertising selling the full story/author on them, in which case they'll stick with it to the end regardless of the opening unless the writing is that horrendous.
When I start reading a book, it's because I have an expectation of what kind of story it will be and what I will find in it. Not quite the promise yet, since the author will me making that in the first few chapters, but an expectation of what that promise will be. When I abandon a book, it's generally because I just don't see any indication that my expectation will be fulfilled.

I myself question how effective judging the entire work with just the first 3-5 pages or 3-5 chapters really is, specially considering the amount of extremely successful works that were most likely rejected using this method... but they (agents and publishers) have been at it for years or decades and they say most of the time it really works, so...
It's not like I feel I can make an accurate judgement of the book after the first few chapters. But I don't read because I have to kill time and don't have anything else to do. There's always something else to do, which is reading a different book. To me it's a matter of cutting my losses. If I'm bored after 50 pages, I might get hooked after 100. And after 100 I might still be hooked after 200 pages. But then you get something (I think it was Wheel of Time or Malazan) where someone tells you "trust me, it starts to get good after the first 500 page doorstopper!" And even then I might find that it's not doing anything for me.
Instead of reading a book I don't enjoy reading, I can always read something else that I enjoy more. Even though there's always a risk that I will be missing out on what turns out to be a great tale in the long run. And I think 50 pages is a good benchmark to take a moment to consider if it will be worth your time to keep reading on.

A few times I have seen a writer throw in an "action scene" to start, and then 5 or 6 pages in you get an actual bit of narration to orient the reader.  This annoys me.  I skim the throwaway scene that was meant to artificially "hook" me and go to where the story begins.

Once I can get into a writing style, then what engages me is an interesting character and world.  I don't need a hook or the major novel problem right away.  Just have what is happening be interesting and well written.
I think what I am really looking for in the first few chapters of a book is the author telling me what his promise is for the story. Not necessarily a plot hook, but to at least point in which direction this journey will be going.

Again, I abandoned Wheel of Time and Malazan at around 100 pages because I still had no idea on what journey the authors want to take me. I know that Wheel of Time is not a tale about three kids hanging around in a backwater village and waiting for travelling merchants to tell them stories (which is all of the book I can still remember). But what is it about? To me, a story has to be able to give me a general idea during the first sitting.
It might be to a good deal due to my personal expression of ADD (I absolute hate getting into any new experience without getting a full orientation of what will be happening and what I will have to do), but I always want to have a general idea of what I will be signing up for if I am going to commit time and effort to it. Doesn't really matter for a movie that will be fully experienced in a single sitting, but with books or TV shows that will take me weeks or even months of stopping and starting again, I just lose interest and forget about it unless I have a treat in sight of why my continued commitment will be worth my while.

Just starting with action is not going to cut it by itself. It also needs to signal that this is a representative sample of what the story as a whole will hold. If at the end of the scene I am left wondering what it means for the story as a whole, then it didn't really accomplish anything.
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Offline Lanko

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #20 on: October 11, 2017, 06:39:51 PM »
In any case, I'm willing to wager that, for the majority if they're truly honest, whether they'll read a book is based not on randomly picking it up and skimming the first ten pages, but by word of mouth/advertising selling the full story/author on them, in which case they'll stick with it to the end regardless of the opening unless the writing is that horrendous.
When I start reading a book, it's because I have an expectation of what kind of story it will be and what I will find in it. Not quite the promise yet, since the author will me making that in the first few chapters, but an expectation of what that promise will be. When I abandon a book, it's generally because I just don't see any indication that my expectation will be fulfilled.

I read some time ago something regarding this, from memory it was something like this: When a story goes wrong is usually when a writer takes the reader's assumption that things will get exciting and simply takes it for granted.

That is, the writer takes for granted that a reader will suffer drabness and ineptitude indefinitely. So the writer plods through the first page, or two, or three, or fifty or a hundred simply laying groundwork and that's all. No vivid noun, no memorable phrase, no intriguing detail, nothing really out of the ordinary. Or even the out of the ordinary is not exactly treated well either.

But above all he doesn't plan his presentation to make his reader curious as to what those first few crucial lines or pages are leading up to. And that's the importance, and perhaps function, of an opening. Just setting the world, introducing characters and even having a fight or two break out isn't enough.

Even the beginnings that left a poor impression on us were certainly arduously reworked various times to appeal to another type of audience. Or to try at least to not set that target audience off.   

I myself question how effective judging the entire work with just the first 3-5 pages or 3-5 chapters really is, specially considering the amount of extremely successful works that were most likely rejected using this method... but they (agents and publishers) have been at it for years or decades and they say most of the time it really works, so...
It's not like I feel I can make an accurate judgement of the book after the first few chapters. But I don't read because I have to kill time and don't have anything else to do. There's always something else to do, which is reading a different book. To me it's a matter of cutting my losses. If I'm bored after 50 pages, I might get hooked after 100. And after 100 I might still be hooked after 200 pages. But then you get something (I think it was Wheel of Time or Malazan) where someone tells you "trust me, it starts to get good after the first 500 page doorstopper!" And even then I might find that it's not doing anything for me.
Instead of reading a book I don't enjoy reading, I can always read something else that I enjoy more. Even though there's always a risk that I will be missing out on what turns out to be a great tale in the long run. And I think 50 pages is a good benchmark to take a moment to consider if it will be worth your time to keep reading on.

I get it. The days when I would happily jump into any 1k doorstepper are long gone. 14 or 15 doorsteppers 800+ pages with around half a dozen of those widely regarded as almost useless filler is a huge turn off.

These people that usually tell it gets good after 500, 800 or 2 or 3 books later... I actually believe they really enjoyed it almost from the beginning... and the 500 page moment or the book 3 event were just the cream of the crop.

There really seems to be a lot of fat in SF/F, and I wonder how much the "fame of the genre" in usually having such big tomes, taking the time to explain the world, races and cultures, long journeys and travels across world (or worlds), large casts and etc actually influences both authors and editors that a lot of unnecessary stuff is fine because "people that read the genre are used to it".
« Last Edit: October 11, 2017, 06:43:21 PM by Lanko »
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Offline Peat

Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #21 on: October 11, 2017, 08:24:48 PM »

In any case, I'm willing to wager that, for the majority if they're truly honest, whether they'll read a book is based not on randomly picking it up and skimming the first ten pages, but by word of mouth/advertising selling the full story/author on them, in which case they'll stick with it to the end regardless of the opening unless the writing is that horrendous. And that's what it really boils down to. Is the writing good, and as such, can you trust the author to deliver you a cohesive engaging plot and characters? That's something you certainly can judge in the first page, and if that isn't being achieved on the scene level then why would you expect it to be so at the novel stage?

My experience is its a mix of both. I certainly know too many people with big kindle sample piles to believe those first 10 pages don't matter. I've seen too many people leafing through those 10 pages in the library/book shop (although I go to the middle looking for less polished prose for my judgment).

Also while most people don't DNF after only 20 pages (or don't count it as even started), I know of far too many people with far too many DNFs to believe people stick with recommended books unless the writing is horrendous. People have a lot of reasons for splitting with books and prose quality is only one possibility.

Just reading over the responses here, you can already see that it's down to personal taste.

There's a pretty big consensus here that its about showing a moment to transition/inciting incident and establishing a connection to character. The exact details of how you do those things might be nebulous, but that these are the common two elements of an opening, that's not personal taste.


I myself question how effective judging the entire work with just the first 3-5 pages or 3-5 chapters really is, specially considering the amount of extremely successful works that were most likely rejected using this method... but they (agents and publishers) have been at it for years or decades and they say most of the time it really works, so...

I don't think there's a talent judging industry in the world that hits 100% success rates; I don't think there's many if any that get anywhere near. As such, I find it plausible that they can have a high rate of failure and still be using the most efficient method.
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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #22 on: October 11, 2017, 09:18:46 PM »
One piece of advice that I believe I've seen in a couple of places is "start as late in the story as possible". I had taken this as being about keeping the story at managable length, but it seems even more important in regard to getting readers hooked.

I think the greatest opening I've ever come across, though it relies very heavily on its medium of being a movie, is Star Wars.
You get thrown into this completely unusual setting that on the surface does not look like anything anyone had ever seen before and if you had tried to explain it all through exposition you could have filled the whole two hours. Instead the movie tells you outright in your face three sentences of the most basic background information (which would have taken up so much time to communicate through naturally appearing dialog) and then it goes straight to the big gun. The giant ass big ship, all lasers blazing.
The whole sequence is amazing from a storytelling perspective. There is no dialog exposition and it's all show don't tell. The tiny Rebel ship is running away and the ginormous Imperial ship is catching them. The human soldiers are getting completely overwhelmed by faceless soldiers in skeleton armor and they are being led by a huge black knight with a skull mask. (Also, the officers in the next scene wear Nazi uniforms.) You've been told there's a rebellion against evil and with that you immediately understand the entire dynamics of the main conflict. Feeble underdogs versus powerful Nazi-skeletons. Got it!
But the movie doesn't jump around, like I've seen so many fantasy books do, but keeps following the action. We have seen how terribly screwed the Rebels are. But we've been told in the opening, and again in the next scene by Vader, that the Rebels are gambling on an ace in the hole. We see the princess, who stands out from all the other characters so far, of doing something to the little robot and then the little robot escapes from the captured ship. And almost gets shot down while being helpless in the escape pod but gets out alive by pure luck and sloppy enemies. Even if we don't understand the situation fully yet, we do understand that everything is riding on that little guy now. We're already invested in him.
After the capture scene is wrapped up with a bit of slightly exposition sprinkled dialog, we get immediately back to the robots who are the most exciting thing of the whole movie right now. R2 and his buddy have an argument and part ways, increasing the tension. Then he gets captured in a pretty suspensful way, increasing the tension even more. Now we're really invested in him. Then we get to Luke, the real protagonist of the story, And we spend a considerable amount of time with Luke, but almost all we see him do has directly or indirectly to do with R2, who is the highest priority for the audience. And then you get to Obi-Wan and then Luke's family is killed, and then they have to find a ship to Alderaan, and the driving force behind all these scenes are the Death Star plans. R2 and his plans are the focus of every scene in the first third of the movie. At no point are we asked to forget about him for a while we're starting with another paralel but for now unconnected story. Once they meet Han Solo R2 drifts into the background and is mostly just there, but by that point we're already invested in Luke and his adventure.

Now, since it's a movie that communicates ideas completely differently from a book you can't translate specific techniques directly and I don't think you could carry over the same scenes to a book and get similar effects. This story is written for the medium and it works because of it. For a book you would have to use a different structure and pacing.
But I still think there's probably a good deal of lessons to be found in it. Two spring to my mind immediately:
- At the start, focus only on a single story branch. While the readers are finding their feet, don't jump around to new cold openings and kill whatever tension you just managed to build.
- When starting new story branches, don't have them come out of nowhere but have them grow out of existing branches. Luke's story begins when the scavangers come to his home to sell them droids. They had actually shot scenes where Luke is introduced earlier with his friends in his normal life on Tatooine and I believe he spots the space battle up in the sky above them. But it was cut for a reason. At this point we don't care about Luke, who is a total nobody of no relevance to us, while at the same time R2 is having his crazy escape from the doomed ship, leaving his princess behind to get captured. It's actually a good example of "start the story as late as possible" in the context of his character arc. Nothing plot relevant happened with him before he met the robots and we still have more than enough time to establish his character in the scenes that come after that.
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Offline D_Bates

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #23 on: October 12, 2017, 01:39:10 AM »
Quote
And there are beginnings that are off-putting and others that really hook you, so even if we do get more leeway from readers, it doesn't hurt to put more emphasis on the importance of the beginning. Even if you do not plan to mind blow the reader with it, at least to not put them off. But of course, if the rest of the story does, I agree it won't really matter.

To clarify, I didn't intend to insinuate that you should slack off or half-arse the opening because it doesn't matter, only that the consensus of it's importance is inflated for the wrong reasons. The writing should be top quality throughout, and I would find it equally if not more offensive if the opening was a lyrical masterpiece only for the writing to degrade to drivel after the first 50 pages.

When I start reading a book, it's because I have an expectation of what kind of story it will be and what I will find in it. Not quite the promise yet, since the author will me making that in the first few chapters, but an expectation of what that promise will be. When I abandon a book, it's generally because I just don't see any indication that my expectation will be fulfilled.

This is a key point to me, because that expectation is there before you start reading, right? When you pick up the book you either already have some knowledge of the story, or at the very least you've read the blurb on the back which in itself is often the plot synopsis everyone claims should be in the first x many pages. So I guess the question to ask is whether it's the 'lack of a promise' that makes you stop reading, because that promise hasn't disappeared, or is it that the writing or the style (maybe even genre) is just not gelling with you personally?

I think my big issue with this topic is, when you talk about Malazan and Wheel of Time, those surely aren't books you've just picked up, opened immediately, and started reading with no knowledge of what's in them. So in that situation, it's not this magical 'hook' or some plot promise/direction that's lacking. It's the writing itself and it's ability to make you connect to the world/characters, surely? And in many ways there is also a personal taste element that creeps in here whereby the characters may not be ones you're particularly interested in.

Quote
There's a pretty big consensus here that its about showing a moment to transition/inciting incident and establishing a connection to character. The exact details of how you do those things might be nebulous, but that these are the common two elements of an opening, that's not personal taste.

Oh, there's a big consensus, sure, because that's the narrative that's out there that people like to reproduce. I'm not doubting that, because I've read all about this myself for years. I only question it, because I rarely see it in practice in any published works I read, nor do I experience it as a reader.

The inciting incident I entirely disagree with, because that's very much down to the type of plot and genre. Something interesting has to be happening, sure, but to suggest that that has to be some big event that's setting the protagonist on their course in the first chapter, let alone few pages, is just false and certainly not the case in almost every mainstream story I've read.

For the connection to the character, that stands to reason. But surely that should be done throughout the entire story, so I don't get how the early chapters are somehow different in that respect. If the reader doesn't connect with the characters then it's either because their own tastes are turning them away, or the writing simply isn't up to snuff, which is a far bigger problem than the first 50 pages not being good.

Sorry if that sounded argumentative, it wasn't my intention. But yeah, I'm still dubious, because while a few exceptions exist, most people at the very least know the genre of the books they read, and even if they don't know anything about the plot from discussions/marketing, they at the very least read the blurb so they know where it's heading. Therefore, if they put it down early it's simply because the writing isn't working for them.

But by all means, I'm willing to be proven wrong with a little game. Take some of your favorite works and copy-write the first 1-2 pages (or chapter if it's short). Don't tell us the title or the author, and change the names of any obvious characters/places that would give such details away. Then we can see in its purest form those opening pages of magic, and let's see if anyone can pick out these so called inciting incidents, plot promises, and character connections that they apparently all have. I'm genuinely curious.
« Last Edit: October 12, 2017, 01:48:18 AM by D_Bates »
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Offline Peat

Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #24 on: October 12, 2017, 01:57:42 AM »
Uhm. If you think the standard advice is that it's all got to be there in the first few pages, or that the inciting incident has to be obviously big, then I don't know what you've been reading but its not the advice I've been reading. Including in this thread.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #25 on: October 12, 2017, 03:32:30 AM »
This is my favorite opening, though I am quite sure it is unlikely to be palatable to this audience.

It only begins the beginning, but to me it is perfect in its clarity of what kind of character this story is about and who he is like in all the ways that matter and none of the ways that don't. I love the efficiency in its balance of placement and essential exposition with a quick (just 1 page) launch into the story.

 
Spoiler for Hiden:
    These days I look at twenty-year-olds and think they are pathetically young, scarcely weaned from their mothers’ tits, but when I was twenty I considered myself a full-grown man. I had fathered a child, fought in the shield wall, and was loath to take advice from anyone. In short I was arrogant, stupid, and headstrong. Which is why, after our victory at Cynuit, I did the wrong thing.

We had fought the Danes beside the ocean, where the river runs from the great swamp and the Sæfern Sea slaps on a muddy shore, and there we had beaten them. We had made a great slaughter and I, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, had done my part. More than my part, for at the battle’s end, when the great Ubba Lothbrokson, most feared of all the Danish leaders, had carved into our shield wall with his great war ax, I had faced him, beaten him, and sent him to join the einherjar, that army of the dead who feast and swive in Odin’s corpse hall.

What I should have done then, what Leofric told me to do, was ride hard to Exanceaster where Alfred, King of the West Saxons, was besieging Guthrum. I should have arrived deep in the night, woken the king from his sleep, and laid Ubba’s battle banner of the black raven and Ubba’s great war ax, its blade still crusted with blood, at Alfred’s feet. I should have given the king the good news that the Danish army was beaten, that the few survivors had taken to their dragon-headed ships, that Wessex was safe, and that I, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, had achieved all of those things.

Instead I rode to find my wife and child.

The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Lanko

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #26 on: October 12, 2017, 06:59:31 AM »
Before the movie really begins Star Wars shows you its "blurb". The whole EP 4 intro "recap" works as pretty much a book blurb. For a book sequel it could also be a recap inside the book, something that despite all these decades, only about now some authors are putting in their sequels to recap previous events and what's currently going to start.

I also agree you don't absolutely need a plot incident going off right away in an opening.
I think the triangle "before the change, during the change and after the change" are pretty broad in what you can do and don't establish anything specific in how to do it, whether number of pages/chapters or what the incident might be or what the opening lines/paragraphs should be about.

And for me that's the best advice one can get. For me it looks like the more specific and detailed advice one looks for in how to do something, the more it seems like one is, knowingly or not, just searching for a formula to replicate.
And then writing a story simply becomes a mechanized exercise in finding imaginary "technical" milestones and that this "objective" artificial approach is what will make their story sell/be read instead of the unique subjective elements of each individual author put on the page.

So for some "before the change" might take 5 pages and for another 50. One might start with colorful sentence after colorful sentence of description and another with daily routine.
Does a book with 300 pages and another with 900 gain extra mileage on that? I found giant tomes that I read much faster than much thinner ones.
Titles, covers and blurbs also influence on the "promise" of the book, and unless you're self-publishing, the chances of you getting a say in that are extremely slim.

I think it's important to observe and analyze what we can about beginnings, but more importantly, for me at least, is that despite gathering a lot of advice, examples and information on it, is that the author's writing shouldn't automatically change to conform to them, but instead the author should use them to conform them to his or her specific style.

Otherwise, like @MammaMamae aptly said, you'll probably be just one more artificially doing what many others are also doing in their view of what's supposed to be done in order to be published. If a new author is already gonna look like one more fish in the ocean, then also doing things like them isn't gonna help you much to stand out.
Slow and steady wins the race.

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #27 on: October 12, 2017, 10:54:49 AM »
Thinking about it some more, there are also a good number of video games that do the opening blurb. And one story where I saw it done is the first Conan tale. It actually surprises me a bit that writers use it so rarely. I find it to be a very efficient tool to get the readers up to speed and ready to dive right into the action with little delay and no slow buildup. A slow build up ia what many writers deliberately want and it's part of the current fashion, but I think it's really underused.
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Offline D_Bates

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #28 on: October 12, 2017, 06:42:51 PM »
Uhm. If you think the standard advice is that it's all got to be there in the first few pages, or that the inciting incident has to be obviously big, then I don't know what you've been reading but its not the advice I've been reading. Including in this thread.

Then maybe my definition of the word incite is wrong. I thought it meant to provoke to action, and if something's to provoke then surely it has to have some sort of profound effect on the character to do so, no? Have you got any examples of what you mean by inciting incidents so that I can gouge the level of what is meant by that term?

Quote
It only begins the beginning, but to me it is perfect in its clarity of what kind of character this story is about and who he is like in all the ways that matter and none of the ways that don't. I love the efficiency in its balance of placement and essential exposition with a quick (just 1 page) launch into the story.

I would agree with this. This was pretty sweet opening. It sets the narrative, the world, the character, and has a nice bit of intrigue with how the hardened warrior chooses to go to his family rather than his king. The criticisms I could imagine cropping up were this posted on, say, our critique forums would be along the lines of mass use of strange names, the fact that it's set in a cliche arthurian-norse world, and the character coming across as a bit of a snobbish twat, all of which boil down to personal tastes, and none of which I believe would be something a reader wouldn't be aware of before opening the book for the first time.

Quote
Thinking about it some more, there are also a good number of video games that do the opening blurb. And one story where I saw it done is the first Conan tale. It actually surprises me a bit that writers use it so rarely. I find it to be a very efficient tool to get the readers up to speed and ready to dive right into the action with little delay and no slow buildup.

I would say be a bit careful about comparing books to movies/games, and I think that's something a lot of budding authors (myself included back in the day) make the mistake of doing. The visual action in movies/games is nigh impossible to recreate in a book, and while you could pull off the point of a giant menacing death star and a robot fleeing with an important document, you'd likely lose a large portion of the space battle.

On the flip side, books delve into the internal emotions and thoughts in a way movies and games find impossible to recreate. The images you can conjure in a person's mind with the details dropped on the page and the emotional reactions you can induce have a magic that is difficult if not nigh impossible to capture on a constantly rolling screen. That's why many books make crappy movies, and many movies make crappy books, and even on the rare occasions they are on par there are many changes that have been made to cater to their respective medias.

On an aside, going back to the Wheel of Time, I was advised only this year by a pretty well respected fantasy editor and agent to analyse 'The Eye of the World' as well as Joe Abercrombie's 'The Blade Itself' as a means of seeing how to do openings well. Being honest, I also wasn't massively impressed with Eye of the World, and while I did finish 'The Blade Itself' I was left wondering what the plot even was, as by the end I was convinced that the entire book was one giant prologue. So maybe I'm just missing something, but the more stuff I analyse and read the more I become convinced that it all boils down to whether the writing is readable and engaging, at which point it simply becomes a matter of taste.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: What makes a good opening?
« Reply #29 on: October 12, 2017, 08:24:00 PM »
I don't recall anyone mentioning this approach, but beginnings should include a number of questions, small and large, that invite curiosity and provide a reason to turn the page. It's the most important thing, really.
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell