Openings

The best advice I ever read on hooking your reader at the opening of your story came from my friend Cindy Holbrook’s romance-writing magazine (Cindy used to write Regencies, now she writes inspirational from a charismatic Christian perspective——blog here).
Imagine The Editor. She’s spent all morning tackling demanding, stressful phone calls with agents and writers. Then comes the business lunch, which includes a delicious chocolate dessert. As she walks back to the office, the sky cracks open and in seconds, she’s drenched to the skin. Racing back inside, the heel of her new Italian shoe snags on a grate, snaps off and disappears inside. Limping back into her office, soaking wet, she stared at the piles of manuscripts she has to make some sort of a decision on that afternoon.
When she picks up your book (or mine?), will the opening convince her it’s worth taking time on? Or will she put it down and move on to the remaining hundred she has to look at?
I think it’s actually easy to create a gripping opening——although from the slush pile stories I’ve heard, a lot of writers don’t succeed. What’s harder is to create a gripping opening that fits your story.
First, your opening has to set up the rest of the book, particularly your ending. If you give readers a chilling opening about a battle to stop the Old Ones eating the world, but your story is about the mundane struggle for tenure at Miskatonic University, I’d feel cheated, unless you’re shooting for comic effect. If I pick up the book because it opens with a deeply characterized scene of a professor facing a midlife crisis and it then turns into horror and forgets the crisis, I’d feel the same. It’s not that you can’t mix genres, but if the opening promises a particular kind of payoff, you’d better deliver.
Your opening can’t be a cheat: A thrilling scene that turns out to be a dream, a scene in a videogame or an except from the protagonist’s novel. Or a scene that introduces the apparent protagonist, draws you in, then kills him unexpectedly——it may be gripping, but it’s a grip-by-trickery, and annoying if readers liked the protagonist.
It shouldn’t promise a story that’s bigger ore more exciting than you’re going to deliver. If it implies the fate of the world is at stake, the fate of the world better be at stake. Newspaper features are prone to this, asserting that a particular person, invention, new trend is the Most Earthshaking Thing Ever, then never backing it up (the first article I read about blogs predicted that all fiction would cease to exist and blogs would become the only reading material, then failed to offer any evidence or arguments this was the case).
Most of these rules have exceptions, of course. If the point of the Mistakonic U story is that the protagonist’s deep arcane knowledge doesn’t help him get tenure, or how driving back the Old Ones isn’t compensating for the loss of youthful good looks, that might work, for instance (or maybe not …). Cop stories and war stories can kill characters randomly or unexpectedly if they’re not about characters so much as the setting (and part of those settings often is random death). Generally, I think they hold true. One of the things I’m working on with Mage’s Masquerade is to establish both the plot (hunting for traitors) and the humorous tone in the first couple of paragraphs.

3 Comments

Filed under Short Stories, Writing

3 responses to “Openings

  1. Pingback: Prologues « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Too much media, to little res? First post from last night’s writing group « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Hadn’t planned another linkpost– « Fraser Sherman's Blog

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