Some TLC for Your Opening
By 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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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.