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The Critical Importance of Crafting a Strong Opening


 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

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 time 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 clichéd. 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 my debut book, 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.

What about YOU? Do you judge a book by its opening? How long do you read before setting aside a book?

9 comments:

  1. I used to have more patience with books when I was just a reader! Now that I'm a writing, I'm much more likely to put aside a book that hasn't grabbed me from the start. I'm this way for several reasons. One, my reading time is way more valuable. Two, my internal editor no longer turns off when I read someone else's book (or mine, for that matter!). And three, I know of literally hundreds of new authors I didn't know about before, and now I get dozens of free books. My TBR pile is mountainous and I have lots of other options. Are any of those good reasons to be pickier? No. But I don't believe I'm any different than the average reader. That's why it's so important to hook them, and not let them get away, just as you said, Jody. This is an awesome reminder for writers.

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  2. I read a lot of books yearly. First I look at the cover, then the back cover, then the endorsements and then read a few paragraphs on the first page and then flip through looking for language and other things I don't want to read. If it passes all that, then I will read it.

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  3. I don't think I've ever put down a book because of its opening, unless it was something completely inappropriate. But the openings that really stand out to me - that I remember later - aren't necessarily action scenes. Generally, they're the the ones that are different from the norm, which can involve conflict, but not necessarily. One of my favorite books opens with several pages of description of the setting - no action, no characters. It sounds terrible, but it was written in such a way as to captivate, not bore. Creativity captures me more than anything.

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  7. This is really helpful! The main thing starting to understand is the need to craft tension early on. Rather than diverting the story with backstory, prologue, and so forth (as you note) I'm concentrating more on posing clear scene questions: who is this guy, and and will he get what he wants?

    Thank you for an excellent post. Sharing!

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  8. Opening is where you can persuade a reader to go thoroughly the story or book. So, it is crucial in crafting an opening because it is where you make your readers get interested.

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