Today's inspired openings post is from Mindy McGinnis, a YA author and librarian. Her debut, a post-apocalyptic survival tale, Not a Drop to Drink, will be available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 9, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book Pregnant, Friday the Thirteeners and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on Twitter & Facebook.
If You Want To Hurt Someone, Make Sure You Do It At the Right Moment
by Mindy McGinnis
So how do we do that? There is no magic formula or easy route that any writer can point another one to for instant success. But what I can do is tell you what I’ve done wrong in the past, and some of the most common well-intended trip-ups I see.
InstaAction – We’ve all been told that we need to grab the reader’s attention with our first line. That doesn’t mean you squeeze their trachea shut and hold tight. Way too often writers take opening action so seriously that the reader is instantly dropped into a life or death situation. And while that’s definitely action, the question remains – is it compelling?
Think for a second about flipping through channels. In any given moment you can probably land on a handful of scenes where someone is dying, someone is being killed, or violence is being threatened. Do you care? Do you instantly stop on every single scene just to see if the character is going to make it? Um… probably not, or else you’d still be sitting in front of your TV right now, having wet your pants and died of dehydration.
Now think about your favorite character in your favorite show. Is Dexter on his own table? Does someone have a gun to Daryl’s head in The Walking Dead? Did you just grab the arm of the person next to you and say, “Dear God, go back to that!! I have to know what happens!!” And why is that? Because you care about the characters, you’re invested in them before we get to this point in the narrative.
Opening with a character that nobody cares about yet in a life or death situation doesn’t mean much.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time – Wow! You’ve got a stellar opening that cuts to the chase and grabs your reader right away. It’s snappy! It’s original! It’s… the beginning of Chapter Three.
I can’t tell you how often a merciless self-edit has shown me that I wrote two chapters worth of not-so-helpful drivel before I got to the point. Sometimes our beginnings are already written, but not located in the right place. Take a hard look at your first 10-20 pages and see if you need them, then look at page 21 and see what it has to offer.
The opening for NOT A DROP TO DRINK worked that way. Even though my opening line remained the same from first draft to copyedits, (Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond) everything following went through some pretty serious surgery. The final version of my opening has cut and pastes from as far forward as Chapter Four, with bits of Chapters Two and Three sprinkled in, then I passed through with a narrative needle to stitch it all back together.
My favorite opening lines:
I’m sharing three of my favorite openings. They encapsulate voice and grab me. I want to know what the heck is going to happen next.
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. – THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008).
I've buried nearly everyone I love. – DUALED by Elsie Chapman (Random House, February 26, 2013).
Simon Glass was easy to hate. I never knew exactly why, there was too much to pick from. I guess, really, we each hated him for a different reason, but we didn’t realize it until the day we killed him. – SHATTERING GLASS by Gail Giles (Simon Pulse, 2003).