Innocent Openings for Novels
“Stories should begin at a point of innocence.” When I read that recently, I had to stop and consider: where should you start a story?
Point of Innocence: Don’t Foreshadow the End
The main point of this quote is that you shouldn’t start with something like, “It was the worst day of my life.” That robs the reader of entering a situation innocent, not knowing what to expect. It lessens tension, suspense and conflict. Not a good thing to do. It’s jumping the timeline, foreshadowing to your own detriment.
Instead, readers want to experience a situation from the main character or narrator’s point of view with a blow-by-blow, as-it-happens narration of events. Yes, it’s fine to include some of the MCs or Ns attitude, in fact, it’s essential. So the experience is colored with rose or jealous-green glasses. That’s expected and it enhances the reader’s experience of the story.
Orson Scott Card says it a different way when he suggests that the only thing you withhold from a reader is what happens next. We know where we are, who is there, when we are, and why we are here. The only thing we don’t know is what happens next. THAT is where tension comes from.
The Moment Before
Openings should also be fraught with a feeling for the moment before. That is, the subtext of the story, even in the opening, should be embued with the characters hopes, dreams, experiences, joys, triumphs, dangers, and more. What happened just before this opening scene? How does that affect the emotional content of this scene?
Too often, in an attempt to jump start a story, I see openings which drop the reader into an action scene. The problem is that we don’t have any emotional connection to the characters and, well, so what?, if character A dies horribly?
Openings are a delicate balance between action and character, emotions and plot. You need to slow down enough to evoke that “moment before” and make the reader care; yet, you must always remember to hook the reader hard.
My advice, after reading many “first 5 pages” is to write a draft that hooks with action; then write a draft that makes us care; then try to blend the two together somehow, making whatever adjustments needed.