One of the things I find hardest about writing, whether it’s a short story or a novel, is deciding how to start. Like the title of one of my favourite novels there are just so many ways to begin.
Stories can be like puzzles that can be arranged in hundreds of different ways so how do you work out which piece to use first?
Sometimes it helps to just start writing and come back and sort out the opening at the end. But it will need sorting.
People lead busy lives. If those opening lines don’t grab them, the chances are they’ll stop reading.
So what makes an opening so good it’s impossible not to read on?
A great opening gives an immediate sense of what the story is about. I’m sure different readers look for different things but for me personally it’s about the narrative voice, getting a sense of who’s telling the story. Do I feel I want to get to know this person? Most of all, do I feel pulled into the story?
According to the experts openings that lead to rejection tend to start with
- the weather (think Bullwer-Lytton’s famous ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’)
- exposition – using more description than necessary to set the scene will hold up the story.
- a dramatic event – followed by the character waking up, having dreamed it. (This can leave the reader feeling cheated.)
- a person who appears to be the main character but who then gets killed in the first chapter. (The reader feels they have wasted time investing in this character.)
- too much reflection or back story – the story needs to get going first.
- dialogue that’s not particularly interesting.
- too far back – the reader doesn’t want to know about someone’s alarm clock going off or what they had for breakfast or getting into a car to start a journey – cut straight to the action/arrival. This is what screenwriters mean by ‘Get in late, leave early’
- a prologue – some see this as a false start.
Oh dear, well I’ve definitely been guilty of some (if not all) of those things but it gives me something to work on next time.
Of course, if you manage to avoid all the mistakes on the list and create a killer opening, you’d better make sure the rest of the story lives up to the expectations you’ve created – but that’s a whole new challenge.
How do you decide on the starting point? Have you ever started a story in a different place and found it worked better?
Look out for my next blog on Ten Openings That Made Me Buy The Book