Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Opening Salvo -- Grabbing Readers from the First Sentence

Been a long time, but finally it's time for another writer-focused, practical, down to brass tacks (that enough cliches for you?) Bad Girls, Good Guys, and Two-Fisted Action roundtable interview. This time around let's talk about story openings, and what makes them really zing for readers to keep them going past the first sentence, paragraph, and page. 

As a reader, how much to story openings mean to your enjoyment of a book? Does a bad one make you put a book down and stop reading, or are you willing to forgive a bad one and hope a book gets better later?

Scott Sandridge: When I was younger I was willing to forgive a slow start, but as I got older and more jaded, and finding myself with less time, I became less and less forgiving of stories that don't hook me from the start.
 

Mark Koch: I am patient with slow or clumsy openings, but it does impact my opinion of the author. Once my disapproval radar is up, it tends to stay in effect. I'll read it, but I am far less likely to trust and pick up another book from the same author. So, I hope it gets better and typically grind it out but become very skeptical and will need much more to turn it around and allow myself to be impressed.

Tamara Lowery: I'll give it a chance, but only so far.

Lance Stahlberg: Conventional wisdom says you have to grab the reader in the first paragraph or they put it down. I give it at least the first few pages. Roughly the amount that Amazon lets you browse for free. That much is enough to give me a reflection of the writer's style, and set the tone of the story. If it doesn't grab me by page, say, 5, there's no point in continuing.

But that's me personally. For the public at large, I do not dismiss the power of first sentences.

I.A. Watson: Story openings are critical when the book or author is an unknown quantity. I'll tolerate a poor or slow start when I trust the writer or have already enjoyed a previous episode in a series. I'm less tolerant when I don't have previous quality assurances. The house is littered with volumes that failed to engage me by page 20.

Do story openings for different genres need to do different things? For example, in traditional fantasy, an world-building info-dump is still considered okay, even though that sort of thing would be heresy in a thriller. Or should story opening follow the same guidelines regardless of the genre?

Mark Koch: Regardless of genre, the opening is where the author introduces his or her style and makes the first connection with the reader. I don't care what you are writing -- unless it is an academic paper I need a reason to care pronto. An entertaining and vigorous introduction is a must.

Lance Stahlberg: I hate world building exposition dumps. Which might be why I've never been too huge a fan of high fantasy.  But even in that genre, all of my favorite books open with something happening. A demon awakening -- opening on the villain will rarely steer you wrong. A ship spotting a dragon. A thief in the middle of a job.

If you're going to open on setting, that setting better be REALLY cool and original. RA Salvatore got away with opening Homeland by waxing poetic about the Underdark because it was the freaking underdark. A setting like that demands a little extra time. But even in that one rare example... he kept it short. Four pages in, we are looking at Menzoberranzan through the eyes of a drow on an urgent mission. It's still exposition, but things are moving.

Very few settings need an introduction like that. By now, we've seen them all. Today's readers are savvy enough that they can fill in the blanks on their own. So bottom line is I'd say they should always follow the same general principals, regardless of whether it has aliens and space travel or orcs and magic. 


I.A. Watson: I'm actually suspicious of fantasy stories that require an infodump start -- especially a prologue infodump start -- because it suggests a lack of writer refinement. Okay, Tolkein could get away with it. Most of us aren't Tolkein.

The only real rule is to grab the reader and keep them reading. If you can do that with a long essay on the socio-political machinations of the dwarves then great.

Allow me also to add a grumpy caution about the opposite of the info-dump problem, the in media res fashion that explains nothing at all for the first 70 pages, counting on the reader's patience to hold out for motives, backstory, and relevance. I'm not usually that patient.

Tamara Lowery: I think it should function similarly regardless of genre. Personally, I think the opener should drag a reader into the story by the eyeballs THEN you can mess with world-building to let them orient themselves in the story.

Dave Brzeski: There's a related thing that I really hate. When the story starts with a POV character, but you're given no physical details whatsoever this character -- sometimes not even the gender. Then, 30 pages in, the author finally drops in an important detail, which almost always clashes with the version your imagination has made up, in the absense of that information. 


Scott Sandridge: A story needs a good hook, regardless of genre. Also, I don't believe in info-dumps. There's plenty of ways to get your world-building information across without long drawn out boring paragraphs going for pages and pages. And most times, the info-dump is often unnecessary, having no relevancy to the story. At the end of the day, it should be about writing a great story, not writing about how awesome your world is.

Do you go back and rewrite your opening many times or are you the type who can't move on until it's nearly perfect?

Scott Sandridge: No matter how much of the story I already know in my head, I can't even start on it until I have the first sentence down right. That's how important I feel that first sentence, first paragraph, first page is. But once that's done, I usually breeze through until I get to the ending...and then I obsess just as much over the ending.

Lance Stahlberg: A little of both. I have had to force myself to move on from an opening scene and come back to it.

The golden rule of action adventures is to open strong. But I actually hate it when books open too strong just for the sake of having an action scene. When I get too deep into a scene without having clue one about the who or why of what's happening, it has the opposite effect on me that the experts claim it should. I like to set the stage and have at least some intro to the characters.

What ends up happening is I write a relatively slow opening scene that does just that. I reread it. Realize it's too slow, then come back with a quick and dirty prelude to better set the tone that the rest of the story will take.

Again, conventional wisdom says to avoid prologues at all cost. But I think they can work really well when kept short, like a page or two at most.

I.A. Watson: Different things I write have different inspirations -- a concept, a piece of dialogue, a twist I want to use, even a title. Quite often it's the opening scene I want to get out of my head onto paper. A number of stories, even a novel, have started out as just a first scene. Of course, some fisrt scenes have stayed there and never progressed to a second.

I always revisit the first scene at the end of the writing process. Since it was probably the first bit I wrote, the story and style might have been refined in the subsequent 100,000 words so it needs checking for tone. It must have page-turning impact, so it needs some extra polish. The danger is that in tinkering I lose that original spark that made it a good scene in the first place.

Tamara Lowery: Rewrites can wait until time for revisions and edits prior to and after submission. Write it once, let it sit, then go back later with a fresh mind.


What makes an story opening effective? What makes you want to keep reading?

Mark Koch: I can be indulged to care with action, or emotion, or intellectual gymnastics. Paint a fun alternate reality or draw up a curious character. Slap something unexpectedly violent across the windshield. But you had better give my mind a toy to play with before it gets bored. Clever prose can do it, but clever storytelling is a better bet.

Lance Stahlberg: Movement. Always be in motion. It doesn't necessarily need to be violent, explosive action. But the reader wants to follow somebody and see events unfold through their eyes right out of the gate.

And humor. Even the most serious story should be presented with healthy doses of humor, and I want to see that up front.


Scott Sandridge: The opening of the story has to get you asking "What's this? what's going on? I need to know more!" It needs to introduce the main protagonist, or at least someone just as important (like the main antagonist), set up the situation, and provide the motivations to get the character going. In a short story that has to be done within the first page or two. In a novel, before the first chapter has ended
.
 

I.A. Watson: The reader has to care about or wonder about something or someone. The reader must invest. Either we like - or hate - a character or situation, or we're intrigued by an event.

Think of the start of Ian Banks' The Crow Road -- "It was the day my grandmother exploded." Nobody could avoid reading the next line. And the next, and the next, and it unfolds from there. Think of Lessa's awakening at the start of Anne McCaffery's Dragonflight and how her fantasy world naturally unveils from there.

A word of caution, though. As a seasoned, cynical, critical reader I am very suspicious now of books that start with a prophecy poem. Tolkein nailed it with "One ring to rule them all..." Other prophecies need not apply.

Prologues are a controversial topic too. I've had publishers request them added and others ask them to be deleted. My general rule is that unless you can quantify what value they add, other than making the author look clever on a second read, then they're best left until you are Stephen King popular and can do whatever you like. Use them if there's good reason. Otherwise, go straight for your readers' jugulars and never let go till they wake up buying the sequel.

Tamara Lowery: Interesting character(s); interesting, fun, or emotionally gripping action; and the kind of location you'd like to visit, can relate to, or hope to God is NOT a real place.