Nailing that opening

The monster perches on our shoulders, demanding that the opening of our story has to grab the reader. “You’re not Stephen King,” it howls. “He can meander around a bit because everyone knows it’s going to eventually get good. You’re no one! You have to pull them in early!”

This pressure often makes new writers believe this means the story has to start with an exciting fight scene or an explosion or something.

Not true.  the-writer2

As an editor, I’ve received many stories that fail on their first page. But the ones that are accepted almost always have four elements that establish the story early on. (I say “almost always” because, as has been pointed out many times, for every writing “rule” there is a very talented and experienced writer that has broken it. If you are reading this blog, it is unlikely that you fall into that category.)

To grab the reader early on, you need:

The scene. The idea is to get an image into your reader’s head. Does this story take place in the present? The past? On a space ship, in a living room, in the desert, on the moon? You don’t have to give everything away, and saying “London, 1856” is a cheat, so instead, describe the clicking of heels on a cobblestone street, the gaslight lamps, the fog rolling in from the river… Remember to use all of the senses, describing smells and sounds, temperature and weather.

But don’t go into great detail. No one wants too much detail. A single sentence can do this. All you want to do is set a basic picture.

The character. Ideally, this should be your main character, since it’s their story you’re telling. We need someone to identify with. Once more, we don’t need a huge amount of detail, but enough so we know the basics. Unless there is a reason to hide the fact, we should know if this is a male or female, young or old, and perhaps even what their emotions are at the moment. Maybe it’s a woman walking those cobblestone streets, anxious and nervous…

An action. Something has to be happening, and it should be something that captures our interest. Too many stories start with a scene and a character and the action is waking up and making coffee. Boring! That’s not where the story begins. What is the action that starts the actual plot? Once more, we don’t need an explosion. The action can be simple. Perhaps she bumps into a man who drops a piece of paper…

A question. This is key. As I’ve said before, every story is a mystery. There should be something on every page to make people want to keep reading. There needs to be a question that can only be answered by continuing to read. That’s the hook. Maybe she reads the paper the man dropped, and it has an address and a strange message written in code. She suddenly gets excited and calls for a hansom cab…

Now go and grab any random book off the shelf and see for yourself if all four of these elements can be found on the first page. If you want your book to be on someone else’s shelf, then perhaps you should do the same.

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