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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write VI

The opening sets the overture for the whole story. It tells the reader what is going to follow. It is, without doubt, the single most important aspect of the craft to master.

How many good books suffer neglect through the inefficiency of their beginnings?

Edgar Allen Poe

The type of opening depends on the plot or the mood or the disposition of the narrator, and it can take many forms.

An atmospheric opening (A bleak wind cut through the open window) leaves us in no doubt as to our location.
A character opening (I was in awe of Mr Dayton) tells us something about the personality of the narrator.
An action opening (The sound of drumming hooves came through the cottage wall) has us sitting up in the chair.
A philosophical opening (The problem with trying to murder a fashion model is that she looks dead before you kill her) gives us an immediate chance to take sides.
An emotional opening (I was tearful and anxious) prepares us for a bumpy ride.
A situation opening (to everyone’s astonishment the young trapeze artist had let go of her father’s hand) presents us with a troubling question.
And a dialogue opening (You are liable to meet with an accident, the professor told me) gives us character and action and a question all in one.

All of these, and any others you can think of, are quite valid and do not pose any obvious problems. But there are a few rules that the beginning writer would do well to observe (you can break them later), or end up with insurmountable problems.

1. Start in the middle of things or just before or just after a crisis. I still find that the first few paragraphs I write, sometimes the first few chapters, are not the right place to begin. Introduce your readers into the middle of a scene. You can tell them later how it began.
2. Don’t open with a character alone just thinking. Unless it’s a momentous decision or in mysterious circumstances. I know you can tell me about classic novels that break this rule. When you are writing your classic novel you can break it as well. But for now it is best avoided.
3. Rewrite, prune and polish your opening sentence and paragraph. These have to be the best thing you can do. If your MS ever gets into the hands of an agent or a publisher, initially, it is these sentences on which it will be judged.
4. Never telescope the ending or give the impression everything’s going to be fine. When your reader stops worrying and guessing he or she will stop reading.
5. Don’t listen to advice from other writers. Or from anyone. It is your own story. Do with it whatever you will.

2 Responses to “Learning to Write VI”

  1. bloglily says:

    What clear, helpful, wonderful advice — you’ve beautifully distilled a lot of very useful information. Thank you. You’ve also inspired me to edit the opening of the novel I’ve just completed along the lines you’ve described. And for that I’m also grateful.

    jb says: Good to see you here, Bloglily. And even more so to hear that I’ve been helpful. It’s not every day  . . .

  2. Great post! Working on a novel in chapter form, suddenly it becomes a collection of very important first lines. As a side note, I adore this line: The problem with trying to murder a fashion model is that she looks dead before you kill her : )

    jb says: It’s good you enjoyed the post.  From time to time I’ve held writers’ workshops on Openings, always popular and, well, it’s somewhere to start . . .