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3 Ways to Find the Perfect Opening for Your Story

Thursday, March 8, 2012

I admit. I always have a hard time figuring out my openings.

Even with the manuscript I’m currently working on, I labored long and hard to figure out the best spot to start my story. In fact, I’ve struggled to pick the perfect opener with each book I’ve written. And even after all my agonizing, I still don’t always nail my openings.

Finding the right opening isn’t anything writers should leave to chance. Sometimes the first page, even the first paragraph, is all the chance readers will give us.

If we don’t grip readers with our story from the start, they’re likely to move on to something that will grab them. This is especially true in the online age with the ease of previewing the first chapter before making a commitment to buy a book.

I almost always read the first couple of paragraphs online before deciding to buy a book. I figure if the first page doesn’t capture my attention, then the rest of the book probably won’t either. Maybe that’s not true. But that’s the way most of us operate.

Yes, the struggle to find the perfect opening is normal for writers. Dare I go so far as to say if we’re not struggling with our openings, then we’re likely not giving it enough effort?

So what can we do to help us in our quest to craft a gripping first scene?

Here are three things to consider:

1. Find a life-changing DISTURBANCE.

Look for an incident that will push your character out of her comfortable life into a new problem or situation that will ultimately change her life. The disturbance is the start of something that won't leave her the same so that by the end of the book she's a different person in some way.

It’s kind of like our character is walking along a normal everyday path. But then we step in, hit them, and knock them onto a path that they didn’t expect, want, or choose.

It’s not always easy for us to locate the moment of disturbance, especially if we want that spot to be unique and fresh and not clich├ęd. We may have dig deeper, think harder, and really push ourselves to brainstorm for an event or happening that moves our character out of the ordinary and at the same time hooks our readers.

2. Start with immediate TENSION and CONFLICT.

Once we have an initial disturbance, then we need to plunge our characters into the heart of the action. We can’t spend time setting up the story and filling our readers in on how our characters got to where they’re at.

Instead we need to drop our characters onto the page into the middle of immediate conflict and assume the reader will catch on to what’s going on eventually. We can always go back and weave in important story details later if we need to clarify setting or backstory. But usually the reader figures out what’s happening without us having to spell it all out for them.

3. Use a PROLOGUE sparingly.

When I was first querying The Preacher’s Bride, I had a prologue. It was an exciting prologue (I thought!). But it wasn’t really necessary for the story. Truthfully, it wasn’t until I cut the prologue that industry professionals started showing an interest in the book.

The lesson I learned was that most readers (including agents and editors) don’t want to wade through a prologue (which is often just an excuse to fit in backstory).

So I don’t write prologues anymore. I’m not saying they’re bad or wrong or unnecessary. But I think we should closely evaluate if one is necessary by asking ourselves a few questions: Can the information in my prologue be woven into the story at a later point? Is it essential to understanding the story? Will it truly hook readers into wanting to keep reading? (Because remember, we only have a page or two to grab them before they make a decision to either read further or move on.)

If I have a scene that needs to happen before the big disturbance moment, then I usually label it as Chapter One and treat it just like a regular chapter, giving it a strong opening hook, immediate conflict, and the same page-turning quality I would with any other chapter.

My final thoughts: When I finish my first draft, I always go back and re-evaluate my opening. Sometimes I end up rewriting part or even all of it because the hindsight of finishing the story gives me new or better ideas for a stronger opening.

How about you? How important are openings to you when you’re READING a book? And when WRITING your openings, are you giving them enough consideration?

33 comments:

  1. I love a great, action-packed opening. Something to grabs me and makes me want to turn that page! I do struggle with finding the right beginning, but I figure, like you, after I've written THE END, I can go back and reevaluate and do it over, if need be.

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  2. Struggling with this very thing right now. My first chapters always take at least three or more re-writes to create just the right balance of all the things you mentioned, and provide that hook to keep the reader engaged and wanting to turn the page to Chapter Two. I usually need to wait until I'm really into the book, really know my characters and how they're going to react in a given situation, before I can go back and fix that first chapter. It's easier for me now not to stress over it, because I know it'll come eventually.

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  3. Openings are hard for me, too. But like you, one of the things that has helped is to know I can go back and reevaluate the opening after I've finished the story. Oftentimes I change it so that something in the beginning will stand in starker contrast to something that comes near the end.

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  4. Well this is timely. I'm am currently trying to re-write my first chapter and am struggling as to where it should start. Thank you for so good tips Jody.

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  5. Hi Jody,

    Openings are usually easy for me. A voice or a scene pops into my head, and I take it from there. It's the middle that kills me.

    As a reader, I don't need action to get me started in a novel; I need to connect with the character either through the voice or an interesting situation (not necessarily action-packed).

    If I like the MC right off the bat, I'll want to keep reading. Or if I just have to know how things turn out based on that opening situation, I'll want to keep reading.

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  6. The opening is hard for me too, because there is so much pressure to hook the reader! But I've had the chance to really work on my opening since the Genesis and Frasier contests both involve the first scene/chapter! Great advice, Jody. :)

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  7. Thanks for the help!! I often find myself stuck on where to begin, this will encourage me to make better decisions.

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  8. Wonderful tips, Jody! I struggle with the opening, too. But like you I finish the first draft before going back to work on the beginning. It always gives me a better perspective.

    As a reader, I can handle a first chapter that's less than riveting. Even before I became a writer I'd give a book until at least the third chapter before giving up on it. Now that I understand how hard it is to get that opening just right I'm even more forgiving of a first chapter that doesn't hook me right away. But if I'm still not pulled in by the time I get to Chapter 4, then I'm done.

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  9. Great advice! I'm struggling with this right now myself. It takes me a few tries to get it right.

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  11. A good opening is vital to your book. I also think a writer should know how the book will end before writing the openings. The opening depends on the ending and the resolution of the story. If you know the ending, the opening can be filled with all sorts of interesting tidbits that will also drive the story.

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  12. I love an opening that sucks me into a book. I've grappled with this in my own writing and probably always will because it's so important. Today's short attention spans are challenging and readers expect a lot, so do I.

    As you mentioned Jody, you go back and evaluate your opening after your first draft. I would encourage all writers not to get too hung up on the opening when they first write it. Do you best and write the book. But then brainstorm all kinds of alternatives for and opening. I have never used the same opening that I started with for any piece of my writing. It's hard but after the book is written I think the first page, first paragraph, first line is easier to develop and a lot more fun.

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  13. I love writing openings! Most of my book ideas begin with the opening scene, and then I work from there. I definitely go back and try to make them better, but I almost always know how the book will start. Now if I could just figure out how to write the middle and the end. :)

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  14. Hmmm...to prologue or not to prologue, that IS the question, isn't it? I've often wondered if it robs the opening or sets the stage. Thanks for these great tips to ponder, Jody!

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  15. I find if the opening has action that goes on for too long without an opportunity to start and know the protagonist, I don't feel invested or interested. What do you think?

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  16. Hey everyone!! I'm appreciating hearing from all of you today! A number of you have shared what works for you in picking an opening and it seems that writing our endings is a great way to garner better ideas for the opening.

    Caroline, I think that once we pick that perfect opening, then we have to start right away letting our readers get to know our character. One way we can do that is to show how our characters react to the disturbance. Often that's a great way to help build reader empathy, don't you think?

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  17. I've been brainstorming my opening for my next WIP for days now, trying to figure out which would be the best point of change to kick it off with. Thank you for the timely post; gives me some new direction to work with!

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  18. Great post!

    I am much stronger at endings than opening scenes. I have had to rethink openings time and time again.

    But like Jillian said, better not to get bogged down with that opening...better to just write then go back anc evaluate.

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  19. Jody, I'm struggling with this big time with my current wip. I've rewritten it twice, but it's nowhere near where it should be. But it'll get there :)

    Thanks for the great advice!

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  20. Great post, Jody. My favorite part is if you don't struggle with your opening then it's probably not the best opening it could be. I'd like to think it gets easier to do though, so I'm glad most of my stories are picture books, where the start is much easier than in novels.

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  21. Openings are EVERYTHING to me! I love them, love to read them, love to write them. It's one of the very first things I do when I open a book at a bookstore AND when I get a book in the mail I've requested to review or just to read.

    Prologue's have to be GREAT to really fit the story and they have to tie into the story in some way for them to work for me.

    I love to write my opening line. It's my favorite part. Flipside, I hate to write the ending. ;-)

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  22. Interesting fact about my prologue.

    After entering it in the Genesis, I had a judge tell me to ditch it because she didn't like prologues.

    Ended up being the one thing that really DID catch editors' attention.

    Since then, I've had early readers that have told me the prologue really grabbed their attention.

    Just goes to show that sometimes, they are a good fit. I think short and sweet is the key, and it has to be important to the story.

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  23. I love writing the beginnings to my books -- actually the beginnings to each chapter! Of course, I have to tweak my first efforts to land it just right.
    One technique I learned from author Susan May Warren is to ask: What is my character thinking right now?
    It's one way to get right into my hero or heroine's thoughts ... and sometimes that thought is my opening line.

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  24. Very topical post for me right now, thank you. I'm in the process of rethinking my beginning, hoping that's what is causing it to get rejections. Thanks for the great advice.

    As a reader though I am fine with starting a book slowly. I don't think books have to start with action, but tension. As you said... Get in the hero's way somehow. If the book doesn't grip me by page 20 though, it's doomed.

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  25. After editing, writing an opening is my least favourite part of writing a book. They're so important. I love a good opening. But I always find it so awkward and stiff at first trying to write one.

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  26. While I like a good action scene to start off the story, I also like a little bit of grounding within the story -- who am I supposed to care about? Where, and sometimes even when, are we? I remember one book that started out with a huge action scene -- a guy was running from thugs -- I just didn't know if I was supposed to care about the guy running, or the thugs chasing. I was very frustrated and only kept reading because a good friend had said the book was so good.

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  27. I understand the need for an action-packed beginning, but I hope the rest of the book doesn't slide from there. I don't want the beginning of the books I read to be the climax of the story. What usually draws me in to a book is the writing. Do I feel part of the story in such a way that I know it will impact me deeply. That's what I generally look for in those first few pages.

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  28. Thanks for sharing such helpful information, Jody! I've just begun a new story and realize, from reading this, that the beginning scene needs more conflict!

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  29. This is so bizarre. I'm 36,000 words in to my novel and I've been totally avoiding writing the opening, but as I read this post I suddenly realised what needs to happen.
    (And I'm pretty certain I've never in my life had a good idea at 9.30pm before.)
    Thank you!

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  30. Hey Overdue! So glad the post could spur some thoughts for your opening! Love when that happens! Wish you all the best!

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  31. Openings are the hardest. I think I have it, then read something that says what I did wasn't the "best" way and I'm off re-writing again. Ugh! Sometimes I wonder if we ever truly get the hang of it. Thanks for the great post.

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  32. I never knew how important an opening was until I began writing. I am now really paying attention when I write (baby steps) and when I read. Thanks for this post.

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