Chrissey’s Writing Tips #3

Posted by Chrissey - 26th October 2011

Every writer wants people to read their story. My next few articles deal with the how to engage readers and keep them reading. This month I’m starting at the beginning.

 

GOING FISHING – hooking readers with the opening of your story

If you want to keep the pages turning then the first thing you need to do is make sure the reader turns the first page. My personal rule when looking at the opening of a story is this:

The first line must make them read the first paragraph.
The first paragraph must make them read the first page.
The first page must make them read the first chapter.
And the first chapter must make them keep reading.

 

STARTING A STORY

So what makes a good opening?

Avoid thinking you need to sum up the story so far to bring people up to speed before you start telling the story you want to tell. In other words, think long and hard about where your story actually starts and start from there.

Going back to Writing Tips #2 about showing and telling, I personally feel that you must open with a scene. You have a whole story in which to incorporate the back story and character history; your reader does not need to know all of it up front.

Now a scene doesn’t have to mean dialogue or action but a line of either of these is often a good way to open, especially for people starting out in writing. Another option is description. A characterful piece of narrative summary can work in the hands of someone experienced.

You are not committed to keeping the first thing you put down on paper. Try a few different things out. People take time to warm up when they start writing, so the first thing you write is very rarely the best thing.

 

OPTIONS FOR OPENING LINES

Action

Action creates motion and direction of some kind which in turn creates anticipation. Whether it’s running (to where, why?) or sitting (for how long, are they waiting for something?), the very act of performing an action creates curiosity in the reader.

Jean Auel Clan of the Cave Bear

The naked child ran out of the hide covered lean to towards the rocky beach at the bend in the small river.

This line sets the scene and introduces the character in one, very efficient sentence. Not only can you picture her, immediately as a reader you want to know why she is naked, is she in danger, why is she running?

Dialogue

It’s very hard to get an opening line wrong when you start with dialogue; although it may not be the strongest or most original way to open, it is always at least moderately effective. All dialogue anticipates a response and the reader will want to know what the response is.

Enid Blyton Five on a Treasure Island

“Mother, have you heard about our summer holidays yet?” said Julian at the breakfast-table.

Description

You can also start with description, by setting the scene, but make sure what you’re describing is interesting. Usually it’s best to avoid the weather. Weather is everywhere; show us something we can’t get by looking out the window.

Maria V Snyder Poison Study

Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories.

Statements and questions

If you’re not going to use action, dialogue or description to open your story make sure you make it characterful. Make a statement out of the blue or ask a question. Say something outlandish or outrageous.

Rachel Caine Glass Houses

On the day Claire became a member of Glass House, someone stole her laundry.

Breaking the rules

No one ever said you can’t break the rules. Anything goes so long as you remember always your aim: make the reader curious. So you can start with telling us about the weather:

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman Good Omens

It was a nice day.

But be aware, if you do this the reason people will read on is that they assume you are making some kind of joke or at least a point. In the case of Pratchett and Gaiman the first paragraph continues:

All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet.

 

All of the examples in today’s post were taken from books on my bookshelf. Do you have some good examples of opening lines to share? What’s your approach to starting a story?


  • Drosdelnoch

    Some great tips there Chrissey and a nice piece all in.  

  • Marianne Su

    I agree that it is worth experimenting with the opening, it’s just that important.  Some of the greatest books out there are known for their opening lines.  I like openings that give me a sense of the story: ie ominous, humourous, tragic.  I want a tease for the story and I want the opening to show what kind of writing style to expect. 

  • T. James

    After reading the first chapter of Don’t Fear the Reaper by Michelle Muto last week on Danni’s blog I was struck by how well it worked as a peace of flash fiction, which got me thinking…

    Making a conscious choice to write your first chapter as a piece of flash fiction fulfils your personal rules above. The writing is tight, has to grab the reader quickly, automatically discourages information overload, and often flash fiction is written with a twist that makes you want to read more. of the story. If I’m ever stuck on how to start a story, it’s one approach I may try…

    • That sounds like a really good idea TJ, thanks.

      I think flash fiction is also usually written to show a moment in time, rather than set up a story or cover lots of information, so it lends itself to being more visual and engaging.

  • Pat Hollett

    Good post with excellent examples. Reminds me somewhat of my post on hooking the reader after I read ‘Hooked’ by Les Edgerton. An excellent book on how to hook your reader from page one and keep them turning the pages. You’ve confirmed the same thing. Awesome advice Chrissey! 🙂

    • Thanks Pat! I’ll try and get hold of a copy of that book and I’ll put a link on our forum’s recommended resources thread.