Improve Your Weak Opening


More on Starting a Novel

Reading a wide variety of mss, I find this to be one of the weakest areas: openings. Striking just the right note is difficult. What do you include just as the curtain opens on your novel?

Typical advice:

  • Start with something exciting.
  • Grab the reader by the throat and never let them go
  • Jump right in.

Yes, yes. I know.
But what’s missing in many openings is a character to care about. And I am confused about where I am in the story.

Why Should the Reader Care?

A helpful book in this regard is Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. She encourages writers to consider the appropriateness of each and every word. With a class, she’ll often read a novel’s opening and the class considers alternatives to almost every word.
Taking a page from her, here’s a couple openings of my WIP.

“Eliot Winston! Come here.”
That Mrs. Lopez, her voice cut through even the jumpy music from the loudspeakers. I was sure her voice could cut through anything, even concrete. “Yes, ma’am,” I said and steered Marj toward The Voice.

In this opening, we know the main character right away. We assume that Mrs. Lopez is also a main character (incorrect: she’s only a supporting character). We’re in a place with loud music and there’s another character named Marj there, but we have no idea who she is. From the sentence construction (That Mrs. Lopez, her voice. . . ) we get a touch of the character’s voice and understand that maybe he’s jumpy. Jumpy, concrete–these two words are perhaps setting up the emotional context of the story.

The main problem with this opening is that Mrs. Lopez is highlighted too much and it’s unclear where we are. It’s confusing with three characters introduced so rapidly. Where should the reader focus? In spite of the demanding tone of Mrs. Lopez and the questions raised, mostly, the reader is confused.

Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.
Standing outside the gymnasium doors, a drum beat throbbed. Yellow light streamed from the second story windows, the ones Toby and I looked out of when we sat at the top of the bleachers. I couldn’t hear the music’s melody, just the drum beat: ba-boom, ba-boom.
The Back-to-School party at Wilma Rudolph Elementary School had already started.

Tension is set up right away with the drumbeats; perhaps the character’s heart is also beating hard, an implication that certainly works. It’s very clear that we are outside a gymnasium at a back-to-school party. There’s a sense of anticipation, of wanting to know what will happen when this character steps into the gymnasium and this party.

It’s a quieter opening in some ways, but the anticipation of entering the party will carry the reader a few more paragraphs. So, I have those paragraphs to make the reader CARE about what will happen.

Toby is mentioned now, and he’s the character’s best friend. It’s better to introduce him indirectly at the beginning than to introduce Mrs. Lopez.

Where Does the Engine Start?

Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing has another hint at what works in writing openings to novels. He asks, where does the engine get started? By this he means where does the reader’s interest sit up and take notice, the point at which “the reader decides not to put the book down.” And often, it’s with a single word or phrase.

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below. — opening of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.

Wow, what a lot gets accomplished in this snippet. Time, location and conflict. It’s the contrast between finest bridge and precipitated that catches my interest. Why did the finest bridge break?

Write the Opening Last

It’s said that Richard Peck, the great YA writer, works on his whole novel, then circles back to write the first chapter last. By the time you finish writing a whole novel, it’s often true that the opening that please you so much at the beginning is no longer appropriate. Sometimes, you need to write or rewrite extensively the opening to match the what the novel has become. Either way, the opening is extremely important and worth several looks before the novel mss is sent off to an agent or editor.

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