Openings for Lunatics
By Michelle R. Rasey
lunatic with the mentality of a two year old.
get your attention? It's how I used to introduce myself to people when I
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.
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.
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.
Something interesting must occur.
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.
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.
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.
opening action (i.e. the 'something interesting' mentioned above) should
achieve one of the following objectives:
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.
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.
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.
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?
the reader a reason to invest in and identify with your protagonist.
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.
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.
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
flexible. Don't worry about making the opening perfect before you finish the
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
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
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.
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.
practice, you’ll be writing openings that command attention and multi-book
contracts in no time.
information, the following websites have some excellent advice for opening a
Alicia Rasley’s take on beginnings, middles, and ends.
essay by Ms. Rasley on starting a story.
101 has a comprehensive article up
on story openings.
Author Ann Josephson’s thoughts on