Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Some TLC for Your Opening Paragraphs

By Eyal Teler
2005,
Eyal Teler


You're walking through the woods. Here and there you pass a log cabin. You look through the window of one such cabin, and you see a wooden table with half-eaten plates on it, and an overturned cupboard past it. Through the window of another cabin you see someone sleeping in bed. Another window, and you see a man juggling five balls. Another, and a man and a woman are arguing. Another shows a room full of toys, and near the far wall stands a man-sized robot. You might stay at some of these windows to watch, or go in to investigate, or determine to come back later.

Common wisdom says that the opening of the story should catch the reader's attention -- which is true, in its simplest sense. In the case of a short story, the first few paragraphs may be all that you have to convince the editor or the reader to continue reading. This doesn't mean, however, that a gimmicky or forceful opening is the only way to go. The opening, as a window to the story, can draw the reader in simply by showing what is there.

It's surprisingly easy to forget this. The writer might start with the conflict, and forget that the reader still has no idea where the story takes place or why she should care about the characters. With some care, such things can be added in, and their existence can help draw the reader in. When building such an opening, it's useful to think of what I call the TLC of the story: tone, location and characters. Here's how I see them integrated into a beginning:

Tone

How your story starts gives the reader an impression of how it will continue. If you start with an action scene, the reader will expect the story to be action-oriented. If you start with an elaborate description of nature, the reader will expect that level of description elsewhere in the story. The same goes for making a joke, or starting with a dialogue -- which may be why I dislike dialogue openings, as they suggest that the story will be told through dialogue.

Some stories start with a more neutral tone, which doesn't suggest a lot about how the story and narration will develop, although it may hint at it. This is a decent way to go, especially when the tone is subtle. The important thing to remember is that the opening should fit the tone of the story, or the reader will feel cheated. Even if the story starts demurely, this raises expectations, and if the story turns out to be a laugh a minute, or a string of action scenes, the reader might become vexed.

Location

It's surprisingly easy to start a story without giving the reader an image of where it starts, the setting it's in, or even the genre of the story. While such stories can get published -- enough so that it's become a pet peeve of mine -- this doesn't mean it's not a problem.

Some scenes are generic enough that they don't inherently provide any hints as to where and when the story happens. A character waking up in bed tells the reader little about the setting. Beds existed for a long time, and will continue to exist. A character waking in his bunk tells a bit more. A character waking up and looking at a digital clock places the age better. Or the character might use last night's water from the wash basin, or see from the window the reflection of lights on the dome around the city.

A scene featuring a character who walks in the woods and sees something magical similarly doesn't tell the reader much. The initial assumption may be of a medieval style world, since many fantasy stories take place in such a world, but then again a lot of fantasy takes place in more modern settings, and sometimes even in the future.

When I read a story, if I don't get some impression early on of where and when it takes place, I get edgy. I hate feeling in the dark. There's nothing mysterious or suspenseful about not knowing the basic setting. Even in these cases when the character knows little herself, it's possible to give little bits of information to suggest the setting.

It is useful to note that even if the reader is willing to go along without enough description, she will build her own image, so if details appear later, they might conflict with that image, and so bump the reader out of the story, as she mentally adjusts the image. There's no need to reveal the entire setting up front, but if the story starts with the general surroundings and then refines the description, the reader has an easier time.

Characters

It's natural to introduce the characters at the beginning, so it's tempting to not give this further thought. But when you introduce the character by name, have you really introduced her? When she wakes up in bed, in that first scene, is she a twelve-year-old, a twenty-year-old, or a woman of sixty? What kind of person is she?

If the character's age isn't hinted at, I might fall to the assumption of someone around twenty. If that's not the case, I will later have to break that image. Others might have a different default assumption. More importantly, the character traits are what makes a person interesting, and someone I could care about. If the first scene puts the character in danger without revealing much about her, that's a wasted scene, because I still don't care.

It's not necessary to describe the character before something happens. Just like the location details, character details can be worked into the scene. The readers will learn about the character from her internal reaction to what happens, assuming that this reaction isn't generic, but has some aspect unique to the character.

 

So there you are trying to put all that TLC into your opening paragraph, which is already trying to set up the conflict as well as tie itself to the ending, and you're feeling that it's getting a little crowded in there. You may be right: there are no rules to writing, and certainly none that should be followed off a cliff. TLC isn't a rule, it's just something to think about. There's no set number of paragraphs in which you have to include all these.

TLC is worth considering throughout the story, but when put up front, it not only helps ease the reader into the story, but also helps ease the writer into it, as it's written. When you know up front some things about your characters, some details about your setting, and what tone you're trying to use, it's easier to grow a detailed story out of this. With a TLC opening, it's easier sailing from that point on for both you and the reader.