QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Constructing a good opening.

#1OllyKiriyamaPosted 2/28/2012 1:28:40 AM
Week 6, how do you construct a good opening?

Of course grabbing the reader's attention and pulling them into the narrative is always good. Making it memorable is useful too.

Your opinion?
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#2Bazooka_PenguinPosted 2/28/2012 2:42:57 AM
There are always those out of order chronological sequences in which the story starts at a point in the rising action. It serves to immediately introduce action or drama that can hook readers.

But I guess it depends on the genre. Personally I prefer introducing the characters immediately in a rather casual manner but there are always those openings that go into excruciating detail describing how beautiful or unique the main character is. Or expository openings that introduce the setting in block paragraphs.
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#3WellesPosted 2/28/2012 2:51:20 AM
Vital.

I know agents who won't read past the first sentence or paragraph if they feel it is lacking. An opening sentence has to do so much. It is not only an attention grabber, is also a notation of your style.
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#4luctheladPosted 2/28/2012 6:29:52 AM
In all honesty, I don't know how to hook someone with an intro to a drama because, no matter what, there will be a delay between when the drama starts and when it can touch people - you have to get the reader to like or bond with a character before killing said character for it to have an effect. This is why I waited until I had a comedy in the works to write a novella - a joke can entertain immediately. So I guess my tip is to start with a joke, but I don't know how helpful that tip is given that most people write dramas.

I agree with how important the first sentence and paragraph are. In fact, if anything needs to be well-written, it's the very beginning. Few readers and publishers will keep reading if the beginning doesn't hook them. So this is, in my opinion, the most important question for writers to ask themselves.
#5Tom Clark(Moderator)Posted 2/28/2012 7:02:32 AM
One of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever heard is this: "Your story always starts a lot later than you think it does."

Especially in short stories there is a tendency to write a few paragraphs (or even pages) that set things up, introduce characters and so on, and the fact is, you don't really need any of that - if it's relevant there's always a better way to introduce it than to just say it at the start, and if it's not gonna have any bearing on the story, then why put it in (again, this is more applicable to shorter pieces, but still it bears thinking about in novels, too - the sheer overwhelming number of first chapters for terrible fantasy novels I've critiqued that are nothing more than exhaustive descriptions and histories that you just know won't play in at all is mind-blowing).

So as a good tip, when you've finished your first draft, go through the opening again and make a pencil mark where the first 'thing' happens. Then delete EVERYTHING that comes before it.
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#6amethyst_wingsPosted 2/28/2012 8:27:14 AM
Tom Clark posted...
One of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever heard is this: "Your story always starts a lot later than you think it does."

I completely agree with this! My second book began with the destruction of a city, and I tried to write a few paragraphs that laid out the normal, everyday city life before the first bombs went off.

After re-reading it a few times and showing it to others, we all came to the same conclusion, which also happens to coincide with Tom's advice^ :"go through the opening again and make a pencil mark where the first 'thing' happens. Then delete EVERYTHING that comes before it."

It really saved my story.
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#7Icewall42Posted 2/28/2012 8:38:31 AM
I agree whole-heartedly with the above posters. Too many novels, but especially fantasy novels (fantasy tends to draw a lot of amateurs) begin with these expansive histories or descriptions, but how many of us actually enjoyed history class in school? I'm willing to bet that there aren't many (no offense to those of you who do or did enjoy it). Most readers don't want a history lesson when they pick up a work of fiction.

Thus, the beginning of a novel needs to start with something happening, some sort of action relevant to character or plot. Short stories basically need to sustain this pace from start to finish, while novels can afford to take a breather after the initial action.

However, don't fall into the trap of using a prologue as your action opener. Disconnected and isolated action like this tends to be very jarring and irritating to the reader, and it's a lazy, pointless means of opening in medias res since Chapter 1 usually doesn't pick up where it leaves off, and Chapter 1 is the actual beginning of the story.

It is very, very true that many editors/agents will put a story down if the first paragraph doesn't grab them (first page or two if they are feeling generous, but most of them aren't). One of their pet peeves, I've heard, is when a novel starts with "a normal day in the life of" the protagonist. These are extremely dull and extremely useless since it's going to change, anyway.

I've actually noticed that the stories posted on Every Day Fiction's site tend to have very grabby openers. These are excellent examples of the right way to do it, in my opinion.
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#8amethyst_wingsPosted 2/28/2012 10:29:48 AM
Icewall42 posted...
One of their pet peeves, I've heard, is when a novel starts with "a normal day in the life of" the protagonist. These are extremely dull and extremely useless since it's going to change, anyway.

Yes, exactly! In my case, it did end up very dull and irrelevant, too, seeing as that normal life sure didn't last long beyond the beginning of the book.

Unless trying to describe the previous way of life in order to express how very different the new events are, I'd say its best to avoid it, at least at the beginning. Perhaps some mention of it could be added later, in small amounts. A comment here or there, like maybe a character thinking about the now-destroyed cafe they used to spend time in or something like that.
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#9Bazooka_PenguinPosted 2/28/2012 2:44:17 PM

From: amethyst_wings | #006
Tom Clark posted...
One of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever heard is this: "Your story always starts a lot later than you think it does."

I completely agree with this! My second book began with the destruction of a city, and I tried to write a few paragraphs that laid out the normal, everyday city life before the first bombs went off.

After re-reading it a few times and showing it to others, we all came to the same conclusion, which also happens to coincide with Tom's advice^ :"go through the opening again and make a pencil mark where the first 'thing' happens. Then delete EVERYTHING that comes before it."

It really saved my story.


But what exactly is the "first thing"?
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#10OzymandiasIVPosted 2/28/2012 3:08:41 PM

From: Icewall42 | Posted: 2/28/2012 10:38:31 AM | #007
I agree whole-heartedly with the above posters. Too many novels, but especially fantasy novels (fantasy tends to draw a lot of amateurs) begin with these expansive histories or descriptions, but how many of us actually enjoyed history class in school? I'm willing to bet that there aren't many (no offense to those of you who do or did enjoy it). Most readers don't want a history lesson when they pick up a work of fiction.


I blame Tolkien. Not in a bad way, as I adore Tolkien, and consider him, at least in my book, to be the extraordinary exception to a crucial rule. He created vast histories and described landscapes for pages on end, and I loved every bit of it. I've read the first half of FotR countless times over (the entire trilogy at least 3-4 times), and just this morning I read The Scouring of the Shire and some of the timelines in the Appendices.

Of course, that's certainly not for everyone, but Tolkien by and large gets away with it. He's also practically seen as the father of modern fantasy, and he's either typically the first for readers of fantasy, or the first really great author people new to fantasy pick up. And so they try to imitate him. Of course, they're amateurs, and Tolkien was an absolute master.



Anyway, I pretty much agree with everything said so far. Something needs to happen, and it needs to be interesting. It either needs to introduce us to the world, or to the world and the protagonist. Longer works, such as novels, can introduce us to the world via minor characters, not getting to the protagonist/s until quite a bit later. One example is Jurassic Park. It starts off somewhat dull (I still found it interesting) telling about extinction events far in the past and modern genetics/cloning technology. But once the story starts, it starts immediately. Some young girl is working in a small hospital in Costa Rica when a helicopter from an offshore island flies up. They pull out a worker they claim was injured by an earth mover, but the girl suspects some sort of animal attack took place instead, and she takes photos. The man sits up and starts spewing blood everywhere, convulses, then dies. His body is taken by the guys from the helicopter, and she notices too late that her camera is missing. A few pages later, she discovers a group of small lizards eating the body of a newborn baby.

It sets up the story quite well, lots of action and intrigue. That girl isn't heard from again in the rest of the novel, but the scene was exciting, it leads the reader to want more, and it gives us later insight into the company behind it all.
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