Thursday, March 16, 2017

10 Methods for Crafting Better Story Openings

(i.e. It's not just about your first sentence anymore, McFly.) 

by Sean Taylor

I used to be a big fan of having a catchy opening sentence, and I'll admit, sometimes one will still zing by as I'm reading and maybe really make me stand up and take notice. Okay, figuratively, not really. I'm a writer, not a Zumba instructor. Even so, a lot of those hooks fall flat only a sentence or two later, as if the writer had a limited amount of zeal or gumption or whatever you want to call it, and he or she spent it all before the first period of the story.

I used to be a real hard-nose about it, proud of the fact that sometimes all I wasted my time on was an opening sentence to determine if I wanted to read the book or not. I thought at the time that made me a great critic of all things literary, but I've learned since then. The only thing that made me was a [censored].


Don't get me wrong. I still live by the axiom I learned from my friend James R. Tuck: "Life's too short to read shitty books." And I still draw a hard line in the proverbial sand after a few paragraphs. I haven't learned to have more patience with bad stories, just that like a tasty bite of apple could be the sole good spot on a bruised piece of fruit, sometimes I need more than a mere sentence to get the true feel of a story and its writer.

That said, if a writer can't grab me in the first few paragraphs, then I go back to being the same ol' [censored] I used to be and put the book away.

I don't know what's in the water lately in the world of writer-dom, but this week alone, I have seen three current blog articles about story openings, one from Jerry Jenkins' and his writing lessons online, one from a moderately selling mid-lister, and another from an indie self-pubber. Maybe's it's that time of the year, when Winter is beginning to settle away (well, outside this last big storm, I hope) and the opening of Spring waits to announce itself. Or maybe they all got inspired by the same article elsewhere and it was all a grand happenstance.

Regardless, I wasn't really happy with what most of them said, so (vanity of vanity that I am) I figured I needed to spell out my thoughts on the matter.

So, story openings. What are they good for? Absolutely everything. (Say it again.)

You're singing now, aren't you? That's because that line, as hackneyed and overparaphrased as it is, still says something to your inner brain if you're a pop music fan. It (and here's the key big) TRIGGERS something, in this case a melody.

But for your stories, you should shoot for triggering something else, the desire to keep reading.

So that's rule #1 and rule #Only. A good story opening should trigger something in the reader that makes him or her want to keep reading. It has no other purpose. You can tell me that it's about characterization and moving the plot forward and establishing tone until you run out of words, but the simple truth of it is that your story opening is a trigger. If it can trigger AND do all that helpful, craft-worty stuff like build characterization and move the plot along and establish tone, then already one hell of a writer, and you probably earned every cent of your royalty check this quarter.

But let's look at the flip side. Even if you did all that groovy writer stuff and did it like the Artiste you are (notice the capital 'A,' of course), but readers put your book back on the shelf after giving it a few seconds of reading time, you failed. No trigger. No reader. Bingo, bango, bongo.

Luckily there are more ways to write a trigger than there are sinus issues during a Spring in Georgia.


1. Make 'em sing. 

I don't mean to use a song lyric like I did above (but if that works, then, hey, go for it), but pay attention to the sounds of vowels and consonants in your word choices. Stop readers when you want them to stop (with hard sounds like k, p, g, t, or d). Don't let them stop when you want them to flow through without slowing down (with soft sounds like s, m, n, l, and r). Don't let readers set their own pace. You tell when and where to control the speed. Even if you have very little to say, if you say it well and in a way that makes a reader's brain happy to read it, you've got 'em hooked.

2. One, two, "BANG!" Right in the gullet.

Go for the visceral. This doesn't just mean blood and guts. It means make it make readers feel what you're writing in the body, not in the mind. A torn fingernail or a crotch shot are the low-hanging fruit here. What about a smell that turns the stomach? What about a sensation that chills the spine? Write for physical stimulation. Visceral can go way beyond just making the stomach churn.

3. Come out of left field.

No clock can strike 13, but that didn't stop Orwell. The only way to do this one is to just shoot for the moon. Take that risk to go too far. A good variation of this is to begin with the normal and then save your "strike 13" until paragraph number 3 or 4 (as long as it still hits on the first page). She was a mother, just like any mother, wait... what do you mean she was made out or pure diamond? You get the point.

4. Get sensual.

No, I don't mean trigger a climax from readers. I mean to write for the senses. Put phantom scents and tastes in their brains. There's a smell that makes me think of a hospital. There's a taste that reminds of being a kid and sucking on a nail when I was bored. But be careful to avoid the obvious here. Get beyond your steaming apple pie and your delicious cake. (No, those aren't euphemisms, you bunch of perverts.)

5. Shock 'em.

Toni Morrison shot the white girl first. Who do you shoot? Make a hamburger of a sacred cow. Burn a priest in the name of peaceful protest. Do that thing that just should never be done. It's okay. They're not real people (or even real six-eyes aliens from Bettemhauer 11-X in the Greater Hooten Nebula). They won't even be able to hate you for it.

6. Give readers a question they're dying to get answers to.

Who is the dead man and who killed him? How does the supermodel race car driver win races with a wooden leg? This approach works for more than just mystery books. It's why those books that begin with a first person narrative about the main character's own death can still work and hit the best-seller lists -- because readers want to discover all the secrets that lead to that death.

7. Introduce a character so compelling readers can't turn away.

I'm sure you can rattle of enough of these to use all your fingers (and many of your toes). Open up at the funeral of a dead superhero who demanded that everyone wore orange flowers to his funeral. Meet the sexy German operative through the eyes of your private eye. Say hello to the girl who knows she's about to die, but still wants to save her killer's life before the cops shoot him. Paint a word picture of the chain-smoking drunk who saves kittens from trees and gets paid for it by the city.

8. Dazzle 'em with the most overblown shovel full of BS they've ever read.

This can work, but it has to be intentional. Almost ironic, but not hipsterly so. Get purple. Get florid. Cram adjectives next to nouns in ways that shouldn't work but somehow does. The danger is to go farther than you think you should, or else you can come off as somebody who just doesn't know any better, not someone who has chosen to ignore all the rules for your own zany but necessary reasons.

9. Drop in right in the middle of things.

This one is my favorite. If your story is about a killer walking up the path to a victim's house, knocking on the door, and waiting politely for it to be opened, skip all that and start at the open door, knife brandished. In other words, start after what you think is the beginning. Let something be going on, something happening. Have somebody or something doing something.

10. Don't bore the reader.

This one's obvious. Right? But what does it really mean. Don't be mundane. If at all possible, avoid weak verbs. Use interesting characters. There are thousands of ways to bore a reader from the beginning. In my opinion the worst offender out there (particularly in fantasy) is the infodump. (Call it "world-building" if you like, but you know the truth as well as I do, Buttercup.) Don't give readers and essay... Give 'em action.


So there you go. I've said my piece.

Now it's up to you. Get serious about making your openings strong. It's important. It's the reason you get to be the first or last story in an anthology rather than crammed in the middle somewhere. It's the reason you novels demands to be taken to the register and then home rather than returned to the shelf.

This is why I can't write any story until I have my opening settled. Sure, I can go back and edit it a bit, but I have to know where I'm started to know where I'm going. A lot of my writer friends don't get this and ask why can't I just barrel through and then redo the opening later. Well, maybe they can, but I can't. Just like you can't build a house without a stable base, I can build a tale without a stable opening. If I'm going to jump out into the great, big fictional nothing in search of words and actions and characters, I need to jump from something solid to have the best footing.

But remember this: It's not just about your opening sentence. It's about your opening page, your opening few paragraphs, or maybe just your opening few sentences. That all depends on the story you're telling. Only you can know how long your opening section is. Regardless of its length, it must trigger the reader to keep going.

That's the goal, the bottom line, the "every other cliche the world can throw at this example."