How to Open your Story like a Pro

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All good stories begin with a good opening. All.

Without exception.

It seems like I’m stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how often stories with “empty” openings land on my desk.

As is now mandatory with writing courses, writers are taught that there are several ways to open a story – Start with action, Do a flash forward, Open with a thematic sentence. I want to discuss the latter.

In the award winning novel Old Man’s War, John Scalzi begins the story with:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

Over the next 362 pages, Mr Scalzi takes you on an amazing adventure that captures that sense-of-wonder with three resonant themes –

–          Old People

–          Dead People

–          His Wife

In Stephen King’s tour de force novel 11/22/63, the massive 849 pages begins with the deceptively ordinary words:

I have never been what you’d call a crying man.

But in the context of the story, you get to understand just how important that statement is to the entire story of a man trying to avert JFK’s assassination. George Amberson, a loner with nothing to lose(except time) gets to experience life in the 60s and 70s. What’s not to cry about?

Ready Player One, the 2010 cyberpunk hit starts with a more traditional opener:

Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.

This sets the stage for a rollercoaster ride of sci-fi, 80s and pop culture references(mostly American pop culture). What is most striking about this opening is the way it introduces the reader into the exact type of novel it is – this is a book about a game, and everyone is in on it.

Looking at my favorite book of last year, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, another novel with a traditional opener, the same rules apply:

I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.

It’s impossible to explain how much weight those four words are to the entire story of David and the Reckoners, a group of freedom fighters who hunt down and kill Epics(Superheroes), without filling this post with spoilers. But the entire story is driven by that one fact – Steelheart, a superhero with superman-like powers has one weakness and only David has the key to unlocking that weakness.

Finally in the mega franchise that is now The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins captures readers not with a sentence but with an entire paragraph.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

She uses more words but the purpose is still the same (she captures the entire core of the story in those four sentences) and they carry the same effect. As you well know (assuming you’ve read the book, seems everyone has), Prim – Katniss’ sister, The Reaping and Katniss Everdeen’s sense of responsibility play the central roles in the plot of the trilogy.

What I would like to point out is the way these openers not only pique the interest but also convey the soul of the entire story.

When you’re done with these novels, re-reading that first sentence/paragraph effectively summarizes the entire journey you just embarked on.

I’ve been working in publishing for a few years and I keep noticing the same rookie mistake – writers starting their story with placeholder text. That is, story openings with sentences and paragraphs that do nothing but start the story. This is dangerous. At  its worst, it would take you at least 5 pages to get to the real story you want to tell. This may have been acceptable in the 80s and 90s but it hurts your today.

Listen, your story’s opening is the most important part of your story. It’s your welcome mat. It should embody the soul of your story, foreshadowing events to come, reveal your narrative style and draw the reader in. Nailing your opening is what separates the rookies from the veterans, the published from the unpublished.

Sometimes, when editors and agents say they could determine whether a story had the “right stuff” after about 3 pages, writers call bullshit. But the truth is we do. And the opening is one of the 3 things we consider (the other 2  being character and voice).

Here’s what you should do:

  1. Start your story anywhere. When you’re yet to transfer prose from the ethereal into the tangible, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, especially if you’re planning a multi-part story(duologies, trilogies or series). Sometimes what you just need is a way in to the story world. Some writers start with the ending. Others begin with the pivotal scene. The point is, just get your story down in black and white.
  2. Finish the story.
  3. When you’re sure you are done with the story, go back and rewrite your first 5 pages keeping in mind what those 5 pages ought to achieve (depending on your genre).
  4. Then rewrite your first page.
  5. Finally, duke it out with that first sentence for as long as it takes keeping in mind that it should embody the soul of your story.

If you’re serious about getting respect and acclaim as a good writer, take my advice – learn the rules.

P.S. All the examples I used are from SFF(Science Fiction and Fantasy), but that doesn’t mean it’s restricted to this genre.

In Purple Hibiscus, another personal favorite, Chimamanda Adichie starts the novel with these words:

Things started to fall apart when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.

The entire novel revolves around Kambili’s coming-of-age journey and the dynamics of her family.

Different genre. Same rules.

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2 thoughts on “How to Open your Story like a Pro

  1. I don’t know about every good story having a good opening. The first few pages of Wuthering Heights are awful. And my kids found the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone really dull.

    • Hello Elaine, Thanks for stopping by.
      I haven’t read Wuthering Heights *cue gasps* so I can’t really comment on that. But Greg Bear’s Forge of God also didn’t have a knock-it-out-of-the-park opening either(in my own opinion). But I think that’s because the author was already an established writer so he could “do his own thing.”

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