Four Steps for
Working up Openings
By Lazette Gifford
Deciding where to start is one of the
hardest parts of being a writer. Starting too early can make the story drag
until the first really exciting spot. Starting too late can make the
actions and the follow-ups incomprehensible.
The biggest trick to a successful opening is
not to stress over it when you actually begin your story. Chances are that
you'll be reworking it to fit better when you're done with the story
anyway. Just leap in and start writing. Really, it's all right. The
opening of a first draft does not have to be perfect, so don't let it stop
you from telling the rest of the story.
However, when it comes time to refine that
opening for a final draft, there are several factors to take into account.
Whatever your story is about, you need to
bring the reader into the proper state of mind for the story to be
effective. Here is the real question: what do you want the first impression
of your story to be? This is an important question. It will set the mood
for the reader, and even if the story suddenly takes a surprise twist, you
still need to have a very clear idea of how you want to drag the reader in.
There are, I think, four considerations when
looking at the opening to a story. An opening might use one or more of
these pieces of information, and figuring out what they are before you start
can be helpful.
What is your setting? How much of the world can you -- and need you --
bring alive in those first few paragraphs? Is it important that readers
ground themselves in the world right away, or is it more important that they
focus on the who or what aspects?
Who is the focus of your story, or at least this part of it? Is it
important that the reader know this person right away, or is it more
important that they have a feel for a strange place or a clue to what is
going on? This can also include emotional input, since emotion is apparent
in a character's actions.
Is it the action of the story that needs to be brought into focus right
from the start? Are there events that are more important to the story than
where or who?
Who is the first person to speak, and why? What important information
does that first line convey? It might be information about attitude or it
might be information about events -- but either way, it should have especial
significance to your story.
One of these four will most often be the
focus of your opening. Some also enhance style or theme, but those are
things that can and should be worked into any of the openings listed above.
There are likely other possible aspects, but it is usually one of these
four, or a combination of them, that will give your readers the view that
you want them to have.
And this really is important to know. What
is the first thing you want your readers to see? And what 'story question'
does it set up that the reader will want answered by the end of the book?
Readers are, by their very nature, curious people. They come in asking
'Why?' That may be very quickly followed by 'What does it mean?'
And therein lies the problem. As writers we
see our world, we know what's going on, and we know what we think is
the most important thing that the reader sees. In one of my novels I was
certain that the first part of the story should focus on my main character
being kidnapped by slavers and seeing his village in flames as they sail
away. Amazingly, when the editor cut the first 8k words of the novel, and
started just before the second major incident in the character's life, it
worked far better. The original 8k worked in as back story (not flashback)
as the character told people how he had come to be a slave. How he reacted
to the loss of his village became more important than seeing the loss.
Some problems you may face:
If you have to explain your opening by
using a flashback in the first few pages, then you are almost certainly
starting the novel at the wrong place.
you start your story so far back in your character's life that nothing is
really going to happen until several chapters into the story, then you
have started in the wrong place.
You cannot start the novel with an
exciting incident that really has nothing to do with the story.
Here is a trick that can help you get
started straight into the action. We, as humans, are conditioned to believe
history. If you have something outrageous that you want to be accepted as a
premise for your book, then set it up as part of a historical event:
On Monday the fourth person was killed by a
Mentally, the reader is conditioned to
accept that there have already been three. It's part of history, it's a
fact. The reader is going to want to know why and how, but he's not likely
to start out skeptical as he would be if you started with the first person
hit by a meteorite.
For this workshop I want you to look at an
opening to one of your stories. One that is giving you trouble might be the
best, so that you can see if this exercise helps.
You are going to write four different
openings, each focusing on the single word premise listed below:
Darkness came, dispersed only by the haloed golden glow of street lights
purposely shaped to lend an old-fashioned air to the tourist area.
Tendrils of fog, like the ghosts of the murdered women, wound their way up
through the boardwalk leading out into the lake, and small waves brushed
against the underside by the moored skiffs, occasionally sending them
bouncing against each other. Nothing else moved but the breeze, picking
up the faint scent of dead fish, as it swept through the fog ghosts and
past the food shacks and trinket shops, lately boarded up. The tourist
season had ended early.
Michael sat in the second story window of the cheap hotel and watched the
boardwalk. He adjusted the chair again and finally gave up, accepting (as
he had every night this week) that it would sag to the right. The usual
bag of potato chips had been replaced by a bowl of celery and the six pack
of sodas by a thermos of tea.
Outside the window a thin fog had rolled in, obscuring some of the view;
not a good night for a stakeout on an important case. He dared not miss
anything. Even the governor had his eye on the situation -- though he was
worried more about the drop in tax revenue from tourists than the dead
Or maybe Michael had just gotten cynical after five years on the force.
It was possible, after all, that the governor actually cared about both.
Just not enough to provide any more funds for the case. After all, he
had those missing revenues to worry about, too.
The first murdered woman had washed up midmorning on a Sunday, the body
stretched out on the lake shore just a few yards from the boardwalk where
she had been last seen. Mary Nelson, a bright-eyed, sassy waitress at the
Fish Net, hadn't been dead for more than a few hours, and those who knew
her shook their heads in shock. It had to have been an accident....
A week later by a pair of tourists, two college women come to spend a few
days at the resort before heading back to the campus, turned up dead just
a little farther down the shore. The next one came only a day later;
another local girl. Leslie hadn't even graduated from high school yet.
Four murders in less than two weeks, all of them linked to the boardwalk
area, all of them found washed up on the shore, though none had drowned.
The little town of Stewart's Wake had finally made it big time, CNN and
"Ready to roll," Cassie said, her voice tinny in the earplug.
Michael leaned closer to the window, binoculars up to his eyes. The
boardwalk looked deserted except for the woman who came from the small
fish shop nearly to the end. He saw her grab the barrel that served for a
sign and roll it in, whistling tunelessly to herself.
Michael tapped the mike at his shoulder. "Too bold, Cassie. Look
"I am fu-" She stopped and caught herself, plainly remembering they were
on an open line, others listening in. "I am scared."
"Slow down. Take your time locking that door."
She gave a little grunt of reply and through the binoculars he could see
her drop the keys.
"That's a little obvious, too."
"I didn't do it on purpose."
What I have here are four views of the same
scene. They can be mixed and matched (though with edits to make them flow
better), some discarded or all used in the order I wrote them. If each one
is read separately, they produce a slightly different feel of the
situation. If they're read in order, they produce an overall vision, with
the opening (where) a little out of sync with the rest, but, in my opinion,
the most interesting of the four.
Now it's your turn. Take the four points
listed above and write an opening where you stress each of those ideas in
turn. Once you have the four separate openings, see if you can't sort
through what you've written and find a combination of phrases that makes
your opening come alive and gives you an exciting start.