The Dont's of Great Openings
by Katie L. Carroll
Over the course of the nine years until my first book was published, I’ve learned a lot about how to write a solid opening, mostly by learning what not to do.
Don't Open with an Adult POV
One of my first professional critiques by an editor from a big house taught me this important lesson. It may seem pretty obvious now, but at the time I felt justified starting from the point of view of the main character’s father. He was passing the torch of the Elixir’s guardianship to his daughter, so shouldn’t the story start from his point of view? Umm…no. Start with the character you most want your reader to care about.
Don’t Open with a Cliché
Some things have been done so frequently, readers (and editors) are tired of them. Avoid opening with weather (“It was a dark and stormy night”), having a character look in the mirror and describe herself, or having a character waking up.
Don't Open with Backstory
You’ve spent months developing an intricate fantasy world, complete with magical creatures, evil villains, and full languages J.R.R. Tolkien style. Awesome! All the details will help enrich the story and immerse the reader in your world. Just don’t throw all of it into the beginning. Weave it in gradually as it pertains to the main character and the conflict. Even in contemporary novels, you have to be careful of too much backstory. The reader doesn’t need to know what your main character was like growing up, her whole family history, or what she had for breakfast.
Don't Open with Gratuitous Action
In an attempt to grab the reader’s attention right, you open with your main character into a dark forest at midnight with an animal chasing her. The reader’s probably thinking What a great start to this paranormal romance. I wonder if she’s going to fall in love with the creature. If it turns out your story is actually about a high school senior who has one more chance to score high on the SATs to get into college, you’ve got the wrong beginning. Only start with action that pertains to the main conflict.
Don't Open with Generalities
An ideological rant or a general statement about life isn't a good place to start a novel. Openings like this can sound preachy (a huge no-no in YA); they are often somewhat obvious; and when it comes to divisive issues, they can alienate a reader who may have the opposite opinion. Long narrative descriptions fall into the generality category as well. You can paint the most beautiful scene with your words, but if a reader doesn’t have an emotional connection to latch on to, you might lose them right from the start.
Do Set It Up Right
So now that you know what not to do, you’re probably asking, “What should I do?” My advice is to try out a few different openings. Work on fleshing out the voice of the character, establishing the main conflict of the story, and setting the tone of the piece. Have a professional critique done (if you can afford it) and have other writers look at it to. Then look deep inside yourself and see if the opening feels right to you. Does it accomplish what you’ve set out to do?
Admittedly, I didn’t follow all these rules with Elixir Bound, but it was a long process of critical thinking and compromise that got me to a point where the story landed a publisher. After revising it to start with the main character’s point of view instead of her father’s, I had another professional critique done of it. The editor thought it was too heavy on backstory and description. She was right: I had this long passage with a snowstorm and descriptions of two different forests.
So I cut all that and started right in with action from the main character. I read both the old beginning and the new one to several other writers during an impromptu critique session at a conference. They agreed the new opening was too abrupt and had lost some of the dark tone the descriptive beginning had provided.
I didn’t scrap either one but combined them. I included one strong descriptive image of the trees and the snow, and then got right down to the action of the character. The snowstorm, a possible cliché, was important to keep because it was the inciting incident of the story.
Katie's Favorite Openings
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” from Feed by M.T. Anderson
“Gram is worried about me. It’s not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn’t contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I can think about is sex. She is worried about me because one of her houseplants has spots.” from The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
“When he grabs Mama’s wrists and yanks her toward the wall-hanging like that, it must hurt. Mama doesn’t cry out. She tries to hide her pain from him, but she looks back at me, and in her face, she shows me everything she feels.” from Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
Love these openings, too? Why? What grabs you about them?
About the Author
Catch Katie on her blog at http://www.katielcarroll.com/blog/
Elixir Bound (MuseItUp Publishing, August 2012, ISBN 978-1-77127-140-0)