Monday, November 19, 2012

14 Five Thoughts on Inspired Openings and Five Brilliant Recent Opening Pages

Defining a great opening is a bit like defining pornography. The elements are hard to pinpoint, but we know one when we read it. Unfortunately, translating that into a formula of how to write one is nearly impossible.

I've been thinking about this recently though. Okay, I think about it every time I sit down to write, or whenever I read a book, or when I consider any of our First Five Pages Workshop entries.

Here are my thoughts for today:

  1. Great is subjective and varies based on genre and taste. A quiet story shouldn't open with high-action, and a thriller probably shouldn't open with a moment of quiet reflection or a long lead-in about the weather. Gimmicks or high-impact, dramatic sentences may get the attention of some readers, but they are just as likely to turn some readers off. The most important criteria for an opening is that it needs to work for that particular book. The tone and the mood and the pace all have to be appropriate.
  2. Great opening doesn't necessarily mean great for the book overall. A great opening is a set-up, the first step in a series of stepping-stones that leads the reader through the book. The stones have to be set up in the right sequence, and in the right placement, so that the reader can't wander off the path or give up altogether. Writers who mislead the reader by creating a great first scene that has little to do with the main story question will inevitably lose the reader, or at least the reader's enthusiasm. Great openings may get the book read, but unless we, as writers, follow through on the promise of the opening, we are actually doing ourselves, and our readers, a disservice.
  3. Great openings set-up the type of book and the main story question.  Yes, we want to hook the reader. But even more than that, we want to set the reader up with an overview of what they will be getting when they buy the book. What is the book about? Is it going to be dark? Light? Funny? Fast-paced? Slow-paced? Mainly about character? Mainly about plot? Is it paranormal? Is it fantasy? Is it contemporary? Where is it set? What's the POINT of the book? What's the problem the main character faces and why? All that is in the opening, at least hints of it should be.
  4. A great opening will usually start with the main character. In fact, with few exceptions, great books usually have the main character be the first thing that moves on the page, or at least offer the main character's reactions to the first thing that moves on the page.  
  5. Great openings showcase a unique perspective. What makes this book different from any other? What about the world, the people, the story, hasn't been done before? There's bound to be something. None of us start off writing the exact same story as someone else. So how do we get the unique up front and center? That, perhaps, is our most important tasks as writers.
Voice is one of those terms that is thrown around the literary world. We writers use it, agents use it, editors use it. But readers don't read an opening and think, Wow, I love the voice here. Hopefully, they think, Hey, I want to read more of this. And hopefully, when they are done with the book, they also think, Man, I want to read more from this writer.

If you've seen the television show The Voice, you know the starting premise. The judges don't see the people auditioning until after they decide whether or not they want to work with that singer. Like everyone who listens to the song, they have to decide based on the voice whether they want to hear more, whether they want to invest their time with that person, whether that singer is going to have something unique to offer.

Our Mission, Should We Choose to Accept It

Our job when we craft an opening to a manuscript is to convince the reader we have something unique and interesting to share. We must show the reader a hint of our wares, lure them onto a stepping stone, and invite them to move on with us as we take them on a journey. This applies equally to the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, and through every sentence, paragraph, and page thereafter. As writers, we lead through temptation, and we hope we do it well enough that our readers want to follow.

A Few of My Recent Favorite Openings

I WAKE WITH his name in my mouth.


Before I open my eyes, I watch him crumple to the pavement again. Dead.

My doing.

Tobias crouches in front of me, his hand on my left shoulder. The train car bumps over the rails, and Marcus, Peter, and Caleb stand by the doorway. I take a deep breath and hold it in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure that is building in my chest.

Veronica Roth, Insurgent

Prague, early May. The sky weighed gray over fairy-tale rooftops, and all the world was watching. Satellites had even been tasked to surveil the Charles Bridge, in case the . . . visitors . . . returned. Strange things had happened in this city before, but not this strange. At least, not since video tape existed to prove it. Or to milk it.

Laini Taylor, Days of Blood and Starlight

The young girl cringed when they buckled the eyeless leather mask around the upper half of her face and blinded her. It felt grotesque and unnecessary, but she didn't object. It was the procedure. She knew that. One of the other vessels had described it to her at lunch a month before.

Lois Lowry, Son 

The air at the upermost reaches of Haven is  hot and thick with the  stench of rat droppings. Small price to pay for free food.  Normal girls run screaming when this close to rats, but I can't afford luxuries like fear.

Deviants (The Dust Chronicles) Maureen McGowan

"The loss of oxygen, however temporary, however minimal in the grand scheme of things, is taking its toll." Dr. Chen spoke in low tones, but she knew I was listening.

"What was the length of this episode?" Dad asked. Present-day Dad. Distant Dad. Emotionless Dad.

I turned toward the window then and tuned them out. This episode had been long. The loop had been long, and I knew it.

Flutter, Gina Linko

What do these five openings tell you about the books? Do they speak to you? Do they make you want to read? 

Happy Writing,



  1. All your points about a good opening are so true. And I love the examples. But darn it, I want a formula for openings and everything else. Ha! Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. I know, right? I want one too. If you find one, let me know, would you? :)

  2. Thanks for sharing your excellent thoughts about openings! The examples all left me intrigued (and gave me a few new books to add to my TBR list!).

    1. Always happy to help make someone else's TBR pile as long and ready to topple as mine! Thanks for stopping by, Jess!

  3. I find it interesting that in Days of Blood and Starlight, there's no character introduced in the hook. Only a situation. It's the only one that doesn't give me some inkling of the main character. And you know, that's okay! I wish I could post up the first page of Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk? It's a long, slow hook that lampoons every thriller trope. At the same time, it leaves you breathless for more.

    1. Oh, I was hoping someone would bring that up, because I was curious to see if anyone would hear the character in that opening if they didn't know what was coming next. The POV is Zuzana's, and she and Mik are staring down at Kaz who is in mid-interview with a reporter about his "girlfriend" who is "on the bad side" of the angels. Zuzana wants Mik to pee on him. You have to love that! I actually did assume it was a character POV from the get go, because there is so much attitude in there. What do you think?

  4. With every book I've written so far, I've ended up trashing the first chapters and starting in chapter three. All the stress over the perfect opener, then I realize I didn't start the story where the story started. The more organic, less contrived beginning of chapter three has always ended up having much more impact.

    1. There's a lot to be said for that, and I know my writing always smooths out once I get rolling. I wonder if I could actually replicate that feeling by writing deliberate "prequels" to the main beginning that I could lop off?


  5. Oh! Thank you for the compliment about my opening. :)

    1. You just made my day, Maureen! Love that you saw this, and loved the book!

  6. Excellent post. I love your examples. I really do hate openers. It takes me about 50 pages to warm up. Sigh.

    1. I am right there with you, Christina. I think most of us are. Part of it is that we begin at the beginning, before we know our characters. And then it is hard to see what's not on the page when we go back. If you figure out how to warm up faster, would you let me know? :)

  7. Sorry I'm a bit late weighing in here. (I'm late checking my email.)

    I haven't read any of the book whose openings you've given but now I'm anxious to add them to my TBR pile. I'm also re-thinking the first few line of my story. Not the whole opening, mind you, it's what I need to Introduce the reader to my MC's ability, but I see that those important first lines could use a little tweeking. Thanks. :-)

  8. Thanks for posting this. Loved the opening you posted of Days of Blood and Starlight so much I went to Amazon to check it out. Bought the first book in the series instead. Will buy this one after I've read book one.


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