With the Deadline for the Sandy rapidly approaching, I thought I'd remind our wonderful writers of the elements of great openings. Novel openings are tough to get right. No denying it. They are often challenging, subjective, and critical. But crafting compelling openings can be learned.
I always tell beginning writers openings must do three things. 1) Introduce the main character, 2) Show us what she wants (goal), 3) Why she can’t have it (conflict). And in most cases this can be (should be) achieved in the first couple of pages. You do that and you’ve got a solid start.
Here are some tips of what make or break story openings. Subjectivity is an undeniable dominating element in this business and rules definitely can be broken (if one is skilled enough to do it v-er-y well), however dynamic openings are pretty unanimously recognized—just as problem openings are.
And one thing to always keep in mind, is your reader’s expectation. What do readers of the genre you’re writing in expect in your opening? If it’s a mystery, it’s a dead body in chapter one. If it’s a romance, the reader wants boy and girl to meet fairly quickly. If it’s a historical, the reader wants to be immersed in accurate setting, dialogue, and facts immediately—and stay immersed. If it’s a fantasy, magic must be present. And so on.
1) Start with action. Avoid starting your book at the beginning, start when something is already happening. Keep in mind that the action MUST have context and be grounded with a character we care about, otherwise the reader is thinking why the hell do I care about this?
2) Offer a sympathetic character. We need to care—or at least be interested in or curious about the point-of-view character. And Please. Please. Please. Start with the character whose story this is—or introduce him very quickly. We need to know up front who to bond to and root for, right from the get go.
3) Take the time to introduce the character and ground him in his everyday life before throwing him into conflict. This should be accomplished quickly--a paragraph or a page or two.
4) The opening situation needs to be rife with tension or conflict—give us a character we care about who is not getting what he wants or meets opposition.
5) Make sure the tone reflects the genre to help set the readers expectations and ground them in the story.
6) No back-story information dumps! Very little back-story should be included in the opening chapter. It must be skillfully sprinkled throughout the book. Not only is it clunky, boring, and a pace-killer to dump a bunch of bask-story in the opening chapter, but withholding some back-story can be an effective tension device. Keeping the reader wondering what in her background traumatized her so that she would act that way, helps keep the reader turning pages. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by giving away all the good stuff up front.
7) Do not use dialogue to give reader information she should be showing the reader.
Agent/Editors have very little patience for slow openings that are bogged down with lots of back-story or character or setting descriptions. They find perfect characters boring, yet they don’t care for characters who are jerks either. No matter how large the character arc—you’d better give overly flawed characters some redeeming traits right up front, so the reader is at least interested in the character. Agents and editors have a low threshold for poor mechanics (grammar and spelling), so enlist the help of a great proofreader or study Strunk and White.
Follow these guidelines and you’ve at least got a shot at scoring well in a contest or getting a request for a partial or a full manuscript from an agent or editor. I will post some Agents' and editors' opening pet peeves later this week. Until then, did I miss anything?