Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Three Dynamic Ways to Open Your Story

‘My life began the day I killed my psychiatrist and started an illicit relationship with my tortoise.’

Are you still with me? Of course, you are. A story that opens with an intriguing mystery, even a silly one, is a story that gets read. And we don’t have a second chance. The first paragraph is the advertisement for our story. Imagine if an advertiser started with his name, the dimensions of his factory and the biography of his parents. Would we buy his product? Hm…

A lot of stories are like that. The writer ‘eases us in’ with a long slab of scene setting or character description. Meanwhile, where’s the story? The reason to read on? Here are three tested ways to open a story and persuade the reader to read on:

 1. Drop in a time bomb.

Every good story or novel hinges upon one key incident. Maybe our character chances upon buried Nazi gold, or Jane discovers her husband is unfaithful, or a child witnesses something she was not supposed to see. Without that incident there is no story. Imply it in the first chapter or, in a short story, the very first scene. Otherwise, what’s the story all about? Why should the reader read it?

‘Raoul was a strong man, made wiry by forty years in the mountains. Still, he sweated as he dragged the boxes into the cave. Night had fallen by the time he had buried them in debris and swept away his footprints. The cave would keep its secrets, he thought. Provided others did. His face grew grim.’ 

Now the fuse has been lit. Will the cave ‘keep its secrets’? Will someone reveal them? The opener has shaped, suspensefully, the story to come.

2. Introduce an emotional conflict quickly.

A story grips us when it stirs us emotionally and also contains uncertainty from the outset. Suspense means ‘uncertainty’ (literally, ‘hanging between two places’). Get that suspense into the first fifty words.

‘Joe had never been late for dinner before. Storm or blizzard, you could set your watch by him. 6pm. The table set, the ketchup bottles all in place, and Joe saying grace. Now it was 7.10pm. She stared at an empty chair and waited for the phone to ring.’

Something has happened to Joe. What? We’ve also learned a little about Joe’s character, obliquely. No need to tell us he’s a Christian, a stolid man with old-time virtues. We can infer it.

3. Enchant the reader.

If your story rests not on a mystery or dramatic conflict but on, say, the delicate interplay of relationships between characters it must still enchant the reader from paragraph one.

‘You cannot have a murder without a body, can you? No. Or so I had always thought, being a coroner. But what do coroners know about the many ways of dying? They know only of bodies. Dying is a separate art.’

That opener was written by one of my students. It’s poetic but engaging. The reader concludes ‘this author can write!’ And they read on.

The one big mistake that writers make with openers.

Perhaps the greatest error that new writers make is to bury a potentially good opener deep, deep in the story. In an analysis of some 3500 stories submitted to the Writers’ Village short fiction contest across three years, 38% lost points because the opener arrived too late.

‘What did you do with the body after you removed the hands?’

That intriguing line, adapted from an actual entry, summed up the entire plot, but it came on page five after a turgid preamble. What a great opener it might have made! The story could then have flashed back to the discovery of the body, the police chase and the arrest of the killer. And the close might have returned to that first chilling question to round off the story in a satisfying way.

Often the simplest way to improve a story is to find the most dramatic line or passage you’ve already written, wrench it out of the narrative sequence and put it at the start. Then link it back to the ensuing scenes. One simple way to link two scenes is to echo some key theme or phrase. Remember our previous example?

‘Dying is a separate art.

But it was not of bodies I was thinking that bright spring morning in March 1598, merely my breakfast. I had just started upon it when I was startled by a loud knock at the door of my apothecary shop. [Etc]’

The first passage is a prelude to the story, a reflection. Its significance does not become apparent for several pages. But the word ‘dying’ links it to the next passage (‘bodies’). The transition is seamless.

Unless you have a strong opener, an ‘ad’ for your story, nobody will discover your product. Grip us in the first few words and maybe we’ll buy it!

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro

17 comments:

  1. John,

    Thanks for the examples.

    I especially am enchanted with those in #3. "What did you do with the body after you removed the hands?" is definitely provocative. And "Dying is a separate art," is lovely, in and of itself. ( Though, as my rash of paragraphs ending with ". . . and then she died," in my fourth grade spelling notebook can attest, I've long been partial to death. :-)

    #2 is suspenseful, however, I got hung up on the ketchup "bottles" (typo?). I suddenly found myself in a diner.

    And #1 gives a great visual, complementing the last three sentences that pull us forward into the story—and assure us that we will be revisiting that cave.

    Thanks again for giving me some ways to analyze my openers.

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  2. I adore this post, Dr. Yeoman. If I'm not hooked on the first page of a book, I hesitate to read it. Even worse for the author, I probably won't buy it.

    I have often helped writers rethink their opening scenes. Creating a page-turner, as you aptly showed, begins with the first sentence, not on page 12. We all need to commit this great reminder to memory.

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  3. Excellent advice: hook them and keep them wanting more!

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  4. Good post, John. It is so important to engage the reader from the opening. I am glad that you pointed out that it doesn't always have to be that dynamic sentence that suggests the mystery. Some stories open with a short narrative that sets a tone or mood - much like the opening of the movie "The Witness" that set a tone with the fields of wheat slowly waving in the wind. The problem with some beginning writers trying that is that they go on too long.

    Alison, I tried to find the typo you referred to, but could not. It is possible that one of the other admins here fixed it. You always leave such insightful comments, I'm glad you are a frequent visitor here.

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  5. You had me when you killed the psychiatrist ... I was putty in your hands for the rest of the post, sir.

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  6. All of these are great ways to start off a novel. But some ways that are more discreet captures the reader based on the character's 'voice'.

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  7. I am revising my YA and this is exactly what I needed to read this morning. Awesome post.

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  8. Bravo, John--very nicely done! Love your creative examples, and you hit the heart of the issue.

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  9. John, this post charmed me all the way through! I am quite the student of story openings. While in the days of chauffeuring my teens I used to pop in the library when I had a spare half-hour to read opening paragraphs.

    It strikes me as humorous when submitting writers complain that the sample allowed is too short—I make purchasing decisions about novels all the time after only reading a paragraph or two, don't you?

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  10. Excellent points, and yes we (writers) all know it and yet still fail to deliver it.

    Thanks for the reminder!

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  11. Great ways for a reader to get hooked!

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.chicklitfaves.com

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  12. I LOVE this post! It's so timely as I jump back into my writing and need to be reminded of the importance of that first line, paragraph, page!

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  13. Maryann, I, too, am glad I am a frequent visitor here; this community is exactly what I've needed. Typo is ketchup "bottles" (plural). Well, I assumed it was a typo, however, I put the "?" for in case—perhaps they had his 'n hers ketchup bottles or they actually were in a diner or they were set up to play some tabletop skittles or . . .

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  14. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I don't think it was a typo, just Brit English. (I'm always being chided for it.)

    Personally, I'm very sceptical (is that a Brit spelling?) of the maxim: hook 'em in paragraph one. I've just been reading Susan Hill's The Woman In Black (a classic). Nothing happens for the first 20 pages. Yet agents today demand a hook on page one. How come anyone published Hill's book? Standards have changed in 30 years...

    Besides, does anyone buy a book from an unknown author by pedantically inspecting the first paragraph? We dip into the middle of a book! Leastwise, that's how I do it.

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  15. Those first sentence hooks are so important. And so difficult. I'm lucky if I can get a hook into the first page. I've finally reached the point where I don't worry about it until I've moved on ... often it's near the end of the book before I can rewrite the opening and am satisfied with it.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  16. Great stuff, John. Thanks so much for the very helpful info. Now to apply it gently to my own writing.

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