Writing Nowadays–Opening Clearly

I know we were discussing the etiquette of rewrite requests, but something came up just now, and it needs timely addressing.

Former literary agent Nathan Bransford keeps up a blog about writing, and every so often he runs contests.  The most recent?  Post the first paragraph of your work in progress.  The writer of best one, as selected by a combination of his judgment and popular vote, wins the chance to get part of the manuscript examined by an agent friend of Nathan’s.

The contest has been closed and as of this writing, Nathan is mulling over the winner, but the 1,000-odd entries are posted here. Go take a look and pop back here when you’re done.

Returned?  Cool.

I’m not going to point out specific entries and drag them through the mud.  That would be mean-spirited.  However, I noticed some mistakes that showed up again and again.  Maybe you did, too.  In the interest of education, let’s go over some problems to avoid:

–Confusion.  You do want to intrigue the reader with your opening paragraph.  A strange setting, an odd event, or bizarre exchange of dialogue can all be effective hooks.  However, you don’t want to confuse anyone.  Your reader will give you one sentence, maybe two, of befuddlement.  After that, you better make it clear exactly what’s going on, or your book will go into the reject pile.

–Distance.  The current vogue in fiction calls for a strong or unique or cool or off-beat or otherwise memorable narrator voice, and readers want to be inside a character’s head right away.  You need to let us know who is telling this story or whose point of view the story is told from, and quick.  This includes giving us the main character’s name or being clear that it’s a first-person book.  Starting off with something like “An old woman approaches her door.  A key goes into the lock, the door creaks open, the shopping bags drop to the floor.  A set of gnarled hands run through gray hair” feels distant because we don’t know if the old woman is the viewpoint character or if someone is watching her.  Who should we identify with?  Reject.

–Philosophy.  Readers want dialogue first, action second, and description or narration third.  Philosophy is a form of narration, and the only way to start successfully with it is to be brilliant or hilarious.  If you’re neither, start with something else.

–Unclear Point of View.  This is related to Distance, above.  If you start with two people having a conversation, be sure we know 1) who is speaking, and 2) whose point of view it is.  Otherwise we readers flail and flounder, trying to figure out whose head we’re in.

–Flashback.  Never, ever insert a flashback into your opening paragraph.  Example: “Jason pounded down the street as a pair of bullets zipped past his ear.  He couldn’t understand why this was happening.  Five minutes ago, he had been walking home from work, talking to Melissa on his cell phone.  They had been gently arguing about whether to go to the beach this weekend or hit some clubs.  Then those guys with guns had jumped out of a van.”  A decent action-oriented opener, ruined by a flashback in the second sentence.  If you feel the need for a flashback in your opening paragraph (or even on your first page), it probably means you started your story too late, and you need to back up a little.

What did you think?

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Writing Nowadays–Opening Clearly — 4 Comments

  1. Whole -classes- are conducted on Opening Paragraphs! Among other pearls of wisdom:

    Do not start the work with a long quotation. In SF, do not start the work with a quotation from the Enclyclopaedia Galactica.

    Do not start the work with a long expository paragraph, UNLESS you can display it on a receding screen against a starfield as a heroic soundtrack by John Wiliams thunders in the background, so that the reader knows that good IL&M space battles are in the offing.

    Do not start with the hero driving (space-sledding, riding his dragon, jaunteing, etc.) someplace. At the very minimum, start with him arriving there.

    Do not start with “I am born.” Do not start with the hero waking up in the morning and brushing his teeth. Do not start with the hero dying, with the next 400 pages being flashback.

    It is only fair to note that every single one of these rules (and any rule you can generate) has been broken, to stunningly glorious effect, by other writers.

    Brenda (started REVISE THE WORLD with a long quotation, but at least it was from Robert Scott)

  2. LOL! Since openings are always my cross to bear, I’m loving these rules that I probably broke in a hundred different ways at some point. The problem is that many of those types of openings were used in the past and writing keeps evolving. And yeah, some of it is just plain lazy writing. Or lack of editing. It takes a certain level of experience to develop the distance to read one’s words and realize they’re not only crap, but the story starts three chapters in.

    I pity the poor agent who has to wade through all these learning experiences!

  3. I swear that 80 percent of my function in the writers class i teach is to find the true beginning of the work. it is never in the negative numbers — in other words, it never begins before the first page in my hand. Always, the true start is further in. Sometimes way, way further in. In particularly bad cases, further in than the writer has yet gotten.

  4. I still have an awful time with point of entry, so I’ve learned to start by doing everything wrong. Then once the story has developed its own integrity, I can go back and throw it all out. The important point is to get started…somewhere, somehow. This technique works only if I am willing to kill all my darlings and their sisters and their cousins and their aunts (apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan)…

    Amazingly, sometimes I nail it the first time.