Openings: And the Winner Is. . .

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Thanks to everyone who read and commented on yesterday’s post on story openings, in which I gave you twelve options from a WIP from which to choose.

First, the informal survey hit some hotspots for some writers:

  • “I would throw the ‘it was’ line in a lake with a stone tied around it. Sorry, I’m so brutal but I only want to hear about the weather in an opening line if it is deeply important to the story, like a hurricane, flood or drought which will be pivotal to the story in some fashion.”
  • “On your 12 opening lines, I’m sorry to say that none of them do it for me. I recommend Les Edgerton’s great little book HOOKED. It deals with nothing but beginings.”

Everyone has hotspots, things that drive them crazy. Opening lines certainly are important, so I expected people to have strong opinions.

Second, for those who just voted for one of the versions (either in comments or in private emails), I am always amazed anew at how much a reader can infer from just an opening sentence. They inferred setting, time of year, approximate century, the main conflict of the story, and much more. It’s a reminder of the importance of immediately setting the right tone, choosing the right opening scene, setting, characters, and voice.

As the curtain opens on your story, what is the first thing the readers encounter? Your opening line. "Make it a good 'un."

Finally, it seems to me, after reading comments that there are three camps:

There are those who love to read a good first-person narrative. These folks voted for the “I am frozen in time, a girl who cannot move forward or backward.”

There are those who love to read history or historical fiction. These people generally liked the landscape or viewpoint on life (One person commented, “You had me at ‘cathedrals’.”):

  • Cathedrals take time to build, sometimes decades; and as the walls grow, people come and go, live and die. So it was that Laurel came one day with her Father to inspect Sloth.
  • From her perch atop a twenty foot ladder, Laurel looked across the rooftops of St. Stephens Cathedral at the graceful lines of the stone building and the gargoyles which capped every gutter.

There are those who just like to know where a story is going. These folks were the overwhelming winners by choosing the set-up:

When Laurel turned up missing, her father and the priests of the Cathedral of St. Stephens lit candles in prayer and searched and pleaded with the heavens for news of her, but they didn’t think to look up.
It began on a spring day. . .

My Reaction to Feedback

First, a reiteration. This exercise was based on a previous post where I had taken the 100 Best Opening Lines in novels, as chosen by the editors of the American Book Review. and categorized them in twelve ways. One commenter thought that wasn’t fair because these are well-published, well-known authors. Well, they are still the strategies that worked for 100 Best Opening Lines. Whether you can get by with this on your first novel is up for grabs.

Surprise. I am ALWAYS surprised by feedback. If had thought you would think about my story THAT way, I would have written slightly different.

Reconsidering decisions. Sometimes, the surprise is only mild. I had considered your way of thinking but rejected it for some reason.

In this case, I was surprised that the SETUP version worked best.

One commenter said, “. . .I myself start stories for Middle Grade readers mid-action, because I think that age group responds best to short, emphatic sentences & paragraphs filled with action (as opposed to rumination). . .”

I find myself siding with this opinion for novels or stories meant for kids. The SETUP version is a long sentence and doesn’t begin in the middle of the action; I had to add on the “It began on a spring day. . .”

Audience does matter. For adults, you might get away with a different strategy for starting a story. So, did the commenters respond as adults, or did they try to put themselves in the shoes of middle grade readers? I don’t know. All I know is the SETUP version was popular.

I was also surprised that SETUP was chosen by most because, for me, it gives away the ending. Well. There is the idea that the beginning should hold the seed for the ending. And I’ve always admired, for example, the opening of The Chocolate Wars by Robert Cormier:

“They murdered him.”

The context is the middle of a football practice and the protagonist is a scrawny kid that is getting killed by the big boys, as in easily tackled. But it also sets up the ending, where the protagonist is beaten up and the reader is left to wonder if he is alive or not.

So, maybe the signalling the end is a good thing in my setup. Certainly, it will be pages and pages before you know what I meant by that setup; and if it gets you to read the next sentence, to turn the page, maybe I shouldn’t worry about telling too much.

Finally, when I teach my novel revision retreat, I start by pointing out that some of us have unconscious incompetence: We don’t know and we don’t know we don’t know. Moving to conscious competence is an improvement: If you don’t know, but now you KNOW that you don’t know–which means you can begin to work on a problem.

One critiquer suggested that I am unconsciously incompetent in the area of writing opening lines. I take such suggestions seriously and I bought the recommended book and will be reading it. I hope it jars me out of my complacency and helps me create an even better opening than the twelve I offered up. I may, in the end, decide I like one of these better. But I’m not foolish enough to ever ignore a comment like that. I’m studying. Look for updates!

What is the goal of an opening sentence? To pull you forward to read the next sentence. Period.

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