Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Openings for Lunatics

By Michelle R. Rasey
© 2005,
Michelle R. Rasey

I'm a lunatic with the mentality of a two year old.

Did that get your attention?  It's how I used to introduce myself to people when I was younger.

Strange, I know, but it never failed to grab people's attention.  They would pause, holding my hand mid-shake, their mouths hanging open, and really look at me.  No one ever forgot who I was when I opened with that line.

Of course, in hindsight, I'm not sure the introduction reflected positively on me and I abandoned it as I got older. Nowadays, I use unusual bits of conversational trivia to get people's attention. People know they can always count on me to say something interesting.

When I first decided to get serious about my writing, this odd verbal tic served me well and I've come to realize it's why I am a strong opener. Here are my steps for starting a can't-put-down character-driven story.

1. Something interesting must occur.

The story should start with action and something vitally important must be happening. In just a few paragraphs, I should know who, what, where, when, and why the events unfolding matter. 

The first paragraph must contain a hook that works as a promise and incentive for the reader to follow along to the second paragraph. It should be a compact, attention-grabbing opening that hints at the larger story to come. Think short and sweet, but with the weight of a two-ton elephant.  For examples, open your favorite books and read the first paragraphs.  Find the hook and analyze how it works to engage your interest.

The second paragraph should expand on the first and the third should expand on the second and so forth. Each subsequent paragraph should deepen and widen the reader's understanding of the characters, the core plot, and the world in which events take place. By the time your opening scene ends, the reader should be invested in the characters and have a general idea of where the story is going.

2. The opening action (i.e. the 'something interesting' mentioned above) should achieve one of the following objectives:

  • Establish the core conflict of the main story arc

  • Establish the internal conflict of the protagonist

Character-driven stories sometimes juxtapose a larger macro-plot over the microcosm of the protagonist's internal conflict. The two conflicts are interdependent, meaning the main story arc must highlight, challenge, or affect the protagonist's internal struggle. Because the story is as much about the protagonist as it is about the macro-plot, you can either open with the main plot or examine what makes your character tick.

An example of setting up the core conflict would be a murder mystery where the story starts with the discovery of the dead body. The story focuses immediately on the main storyline and must gracefully weave around the body elements of your protagonist's identity and the world in which she operates.  You almost can't go wrong with this type of opening. When in doubt, throw in a dead body or an event that kick-starts your major story arc.

Using an opening scene to establish the internal conflict of the protagonist is a bit trickier. It's easy to turn this kind of opening into an 'info dump' or a prologue that has little to no relevance to the core plot and bores the reader to tears. However, if done well, it can show the reader who your character is so that, when you introduce the main storyline (which should be very soon after this opening), the reader has a strong grasp on the protagonist and her place in the world you've created.

Sticking with the murder mystery example, an internal conflict opening might be a 'mini-mystery' or slice-of-life vignette that reveals important information about your protagonist. In this type of opening, you introduce the reader to the characters and the main structure of the story, but reserve the start of the primary plot for the next scene. For instance, consider an opening where a witch/cop who, having killed her first (innocent) perp with magic, is in the midst of an intense therapy session right before she gets the call to come to the murder scene that fuels the storyline.  This is an active way to convey relevant back story about your protagonist without flashbacks or prologues. It addresses how the protagonist is currently dealing with the past and also sets up the emotional subtext of your protagonist -- how does a 'good guy' cope with doing the wrong thing for the right reasons?

3.Give the reader a reason to invest in and identify with your protagonist.

What is your story's selling point and why should we care?

In a character driven story, the selling point (by my definition) is what makes your character's viewpoint unique. Dragons, vampires, witches -- who your protagonists are and what they do that is special.

Why we should care is the emotional end of the equation.  A dragon who is afraid of fire, a vampire who can't stand the dark, or the witch who killed an innocent in the name of the law -- these are all examples of conflict inherent to the protagonist's identity that give the reader the opportunity to empathize with a character. What are the internal demons your protagonist will be fighting against as the story progresses?  Whatever they are, make them interesting and something that will change as the protagonist grows with the story.

Don't want to reveal this yet? No problem. Foreshadow any elements the plot needs to keep hidden until later in the story. Foreshadowing is great way to build tension and keep a reader turning the pages, which makes it a good tool for openings. Be careful, however, to avoid holding too much back. An opening scene full of provocative hints will frustrate a reader. Use foreshadowing with care.

4. Be flexible. Don't worry about making the opening perfect before you finish the story.

Writing is a fluid art form, and the concept you started with might change as the plot develops, which may involve modifying the opening of your story. If you're beating your head against a stubborn opening, perhaps you need to write the rest of the story to sort out the roadblocks your subconscious is throwing at you.

Don't be afraid to walk away from your opening to work on the rest of the story. You might be surprised at how your perspective changes once you're looking at the opening from the other end of the plot continuum. Remember, the beginning, middle, and end of a story are interdependent. They all reference each other, which means it's possible that you will need to sort out your entire story arc in a rough draft before you can come up with a solid opening scene.

5.Get feedback.

The true test of whether or not an opening works is to have someone critique your story.  Beyond the usual feedback and punctuation editing, take the time to talk to readers. Ask them to describe the character's internal conflict and to see if they can identify the hook in the first paragraph that captured their attention.  Have them pinpoint what phrases and passages throughout the first scene worked to keep their interest.

Be careful not to lead them to the answer; step back and see what they come up with on their own. This will really tell you whether you've nailed it or not.

With practice, you’ll be writing openings that command attention and multi-book contracts in no time.

For more information, the following websites have some excellent advice for opening a story.

Author Alicia Rasley’s take on beginnings, middles, and ends.

Another essay by Ms. Rasley on starting a story.

Suite 101 has a comprehensive article up on story openings.

Author Ann Josephson’s thoughts on openings.