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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?