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Jun
12
2013

What Makes a Good Story Opening? -- by Carol Ervin

Now that I can download a free sample of any ebook, I sample a lot of openings, and am getting a sense of what makes some better than others. At least the ones I like.

I was going to present and analyze some weak startups, with the idea of helping myself and other writers see what to avoid. Then I decided to be more positive and highlight features of good openings.

Writers everywhere want to know. What makes a great opening? Here are three from books currently on my Kindle.

1. SUBTLE SETTING OF MOOD

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.

In case you’re the rare one who hasn’t read it or seen the movie, this paragraph opens Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel, The Hunger Games.

From that first paragraph, we don’t know much about the narrator/main character, but we catch the mood and know a bit about the place. The author has enlisted our sympathy with the words cold, rough, bad, shown a sleeping arrangement that suggests poverty, and established the main character's concern for little sister Prim. When we get to the last sentence, This is the day of the reaping, we already know it's not going to be a happy harvest.

In that nugget, Collins sets the drama in motion. If there’s a hook, it’s in the word ‘reaping.’ But every good opening doesn’t have to have a strong hook.

2. UNUSUAL IMAGE, HINT OF CHARACTER

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things?

This paragraph opens Ann Patchett’s novel, State of Wonder. Patchett, who also wrote Bel Canto, is one of my favorite authors. This opening intrigued me with its sharp contrast—the character’s initial focus being not the shocking news but the paper that carries it. She's avoiding reality, if just for a moment.

The description reminded me of the look and feel of those old airmail letters, so I connected immediately. But I think the opening is curious enough to snare even those too young to remember blue airmail paper. The paragraph also hints of an analytical character with odd thoughts and unique observations. Character is central to this story, including the one who sent the letter.

The opening continues:

This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.

More nice contrast, along with the places of this story, Brazil and Minnesota. I wonder if 'breath of tissue' is meant to refer to both man and paper. I know I'm reading a novel pegged "literary."

3. COMPELLING SETUP

We get both compelling action and sinister mood in the opening of Scott O’Connor’s novel Untouchable.

They come in the abandoned hour of the night, moving through quiet arterial streets, empty intersections, past gated storefronts and darkened windows, homeless men curled into bus stop shelters, prostitutes walking the desolate concrete stretches.

They come in a pair of white Ford Econolines, identical vans, flanks unmarked, windowless and blank. They sit parallel at stoplights... (my ellipsis).

There is always someone waiting when they arrive, someone standing in the driveway or doorway, looking more than a little shell-shocked… (my ellipsis).

First, I’m sucked in by the rhythm and suggestion of the abandoned hour of the night. Next, I love the repeated sentence openings, They come…They come…, and their specific, ominous, mood-setting descriptions. Then the third paragraph: There is always someone waiting.

I'm hooked. My heart beats faster.

The rest of the story, of course, has to live up to--and carry out—the secret premise of its opening. Why does The Hunger Games open with the main character's focus on the little sister? How does the onionskin announcement of a man's death relate to events and people in State of Wonder? Why, in Untouchable, do they come like a funeral procession in the middle of the night?

Notice that good openings do not have to begin with the character's names or features or answer the questions who-what-where-when. If the writing is good (another topic!), readers will be patient. They won't have to know the character's history and motivation right away.

I'm drawn to openings with strong focus on something unusual, with the hint that this is or will be important. What kind of openings work for you?

 

 

Posted by Carol Ervin 12 Jun 2013 at 14:28
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Responses to this blog

Karenginth 12 Jun 2013 at 15:54  
Great article, I enjoyed it and found it imformative.
Lindymoon 12 Jun 2013 at 22:35  

Notice that good openings do not have to begin with the character's names or features or answer the questions who-what-where-when. If the writing is good (another topic!), readers will be patient. They won't have to know the character's history and motivation right away.


Totally agree. The only thing a beginning must be is intriguing. It's our job — and it should be our pleasure — to make it so. The wonders of beginnings...
Onalimb 13 Jun 2013 at 11:43  
I'm so glad you put this up. I call tell, from the examples you've given, that the types of stories you enjoy are very different from those I'd select, and yet the basic elements that draw me in—mood, setting, a character I can connect with, and perhaps a subtle touch of mystery—are the same.
Petesdiner 15 Jun 2013 at 11:50  
Great post. And, I think I'm going to check out State of Wonder. Thanks.
Breeze 15 Jun 2013 at 12:40  
Quote by: Petesdiner
Great post. And, I think I'm going to check out State of Wonder. Thanks.

Even better, her novel Bel Canto!

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www.carolervin.com
The Girl on the Mountain
The year was 1899, the town was rough, and a woman alone had few options.

Lexicon 15 Jun 2013 at 20:09  
Great analysis of the pieces. I love the different pieces you chose, and how you broke them down.
Clarksvill 16 Jun 2013 at 01:24  
I love the way the first example is a waking-up scene. Take that, rulemongers!
Purplek 16 Jun 2013 at 08:21  
Great post. Well done! Perhaps you could do one on opening lines. Here's one from a book called "The Knife of Never Letting Go".

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.
Breeze 16 Jun 2013 at 09:55  
Quote by: Purplek
Great post. Well done! Perhaps you could do one on opening lines. Here's one from a book called "The Knife of Never Letting Go".

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.



Also great. BUT -

Do you know the story about the dog that went to college and learned (his boy said) to talk?
__________________
www.carolervin.com
The Girl on the Mountain
The year was 1899, the town was rough, and a woman alone had few options.

Demonqueen 17 Jun 2013 at 00:39  

Notice that good openings do not have to begin with the character's names or features or answer the questions who-what-where-when. If the writing is good (another topic!), readers will be patient. They won't have to know the character's history and motivation right away.


I've been thinking about this the last couple of days and about all the books I can remember reading most recently and I realised that I mostly read stories in first person POV. So it got me thinking, how a beginning might start in reference to the above in third person POV. I went looking at random novels on Amazon and read a few beginnings, but they were all in first person! All of them (including the ones I've read all the way through) made the 'where' quite clear, by focusing on a something unique to the setting and then widening the lense (men collecting birds' nests in The Rice Mother, a New York cab in Crossfire, a derrogatory Afghani word in A Thousand Splendid Suns), or the 'who'. Can anyone give me some examples of strong third person POV beginnings where they don't start with who or where, or any of the other elements in the above quote? Especially without naming the character. The only thing I really thought of would be thriller/suspense, where they would draw you in with mystery, but what about outside of that genre?

Thanks.

Clarksvill 17 Jun 2013 at 04:33  

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”
Paul Auster, New York Trilogy


Breeze 17 Jun 2013 at 04:43  
Quote by: Demonqueen

Notice that good openings do not have to begin with the character's names or features or answer the questions who-what-where-when. If the writing is good (another topic!), readers will be patient. They won't have to know the character's history and motivation right away.


I've been thinking about this the last couple of days and about all the books I can remember reading most recently and I realised that I mostly read stories in first person POV. So it got me thinking, how a beginning might start in reference to the above in third person POV. I went looking at random novels on Amazon and read a few beginnings, but they were all in first person! All of them (including the ones I've read all the way through) made the 'where' quite clear, by focusing on a something unique to the setting and then widening the lense (men collecting birds' nests in The Rice Mother, a New York cab in Crossfire, a derrogatory Afghani word in A Thousand Splendid Suns), or the 'who'. Can anyone give me some examples of strong third person POV beginnings where they don't start with who or where, or any of the other elements in the above quote? Especially without naming the character. The only thing I really thought of would be thriller/suspense, where they would draw you in with mystery, but what about outside of that genre?

Thanks.


Most novels begin with some element of who-what-where-when. (I intended my statement to mean not all of them at once). I'm sure I've read some that begin with the exposition of an idea, however not in the past twenty years! Dialog between un-named characters also comes to mind, but I have no immediate title suggestions. Maybe others can help.

One of my favorite openings is in Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, which uses third person (fairly omniscient) narration. The work starts with an unusual biography of Quoyle, the MC.

I like your description of 'widening the lens.'
__________________
www.carolervin.com
The Girl on the Mountain
The year was 1899, the town was rough, and a woman alone had few options.

Nastia00 17 Jun 2013 at 04:54  
Very nice blog post, and great examples. I've added Untouchable to my amazon wish list.
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Twisted 17 Jun 2013 at 16:04  
Great blog post. It reminds me of a thread started too long ago, in a place I barely recognise.

www.critiquecircle.com/forums.asp?action=viewforum&index=1&thread=646766&post=646904&offset=0&

And searching for the opening words of 1984 brings up a few other interesting posts as well.

www.critiquecircle.com/forums.asp?action=search&forum=&user=&string=it+was+a+bright+cold+day&Search=Search
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Lindymoon 17 Jun 2013 at 23:29  
@ Twisted: Those links are great — like time-traveling to universes that budded off this one... before this one even existed.

Maybe you know: is there a thread on CC where folks have posted first paragraphs of their WIP (or even published works)?
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Twisted 18 Jun 2013 at 17:07  
I can't recall one in particular, although there may be something that a particular search might reveal — don't know what that might be sadly.
__________________
Shouldn't you be writing?
—————————————
C.O.Y.S.

Pushpaw 19 Jun 2013 at 16:32  
Your attentive approach to analyzing the openings reminds me of the kinds of close-readings done by Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer. Thanks for sharing!
Demonqueen 20 Jun 2013 at 13:25  
Quote by: Breeze

Most novels begin with some element of who-what-where-when. (I intended my statement to mean not all of them at once).

Wiping the sweat from my brow.

However, actually avoiding using any of those in the first 150/250 words would make for an interesting exercise...


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Comeaux 9 Jul 2013 at 17:46  
AWESOME, Carol. Thank you!!!

awriterfirst.wordpress.com

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