Monday, June 17, 2013

3 Write Your Opening in a Way That Lets Readers Know Their Effort Will Be Rewarded by Charlie Price

Even before I finally committed to writing seriously, I cultivated the habit of noting anything that I wanted to see on a page -- any person, scene, or situation that intrigued me. Though at that time a whole book was far beyond my conceptual level, I began writing first lines to imaginary novels.

  • When I awoke I’d been dead for six weeks. The hangover was also murder.
  • Almendorf, as you’ve probably already guessed, was Cambodian.
  • She was tall, dark, and elegant. I was short, plump, and optimistic. Though we’d just met, I knew we were made for each other. I considered how best to propose while I searched for a rag to mop the motor oil I’d spilled on her evening gown.
  • Jake’s girlfriend told him any boy who had been molested by his father ought to see a therapist. Jake had a different idea. He knew where his dad kept a pistol.
  • This year, damn good and finally, Vernal Goans knew what he wanted for Christmas and it wasn’t “just more chickens.” He hated to say it aloud. His mom would tell the whole county. “Sport coat,” he croaked, keeping his eye on his mother’s feet and waiting for her snort.

Over the years, one of these made it all the way to agents, but not all the way to print. Finally, in two thousand six, I got my first book published.

Dead Connection

The wait of the dead was the loneliest thing Nikki could ever have imagined. Lonelier than thinking her friends were making fun of her. Lonelier than sitting by herself in the gym on a bottom bleacher while others danced. . . . Do the dead cry? Do they ache in sorrow? Do they weep in helpless frustration?
You know they do.

I hoped, in that opening, to create an empathetic link between the reader and the dead. I also hoped to demonstrate that the novel’s prose would be hard-hitting and occasionally lyrical. I wanted my opening to be honest and reflect what the book was capable of delivering. I’d reach my goal if a reader looked over the first paragraph and continued reading as she lost track of time. That sometimes happens to me with a book. Couldn’t it happen for me if I worked out a very good beginning?

The Deal-maker or Deal-Breaker

Since a story’s opening is usually the deal-maker or deal-breaker, I didn’t want to start with a lengthy description of setting or character. That kind of opening can foretell an overall pacing too leisurely for most current reading preferences. I revised the beginning a hundred or more times, seeking to create a scene rich enough and accessible enough to invite further exploration, a scene that might suggest the reader’s effort would be rewarded.

Four Openings to Avoid

In other books and stories I threw out beginnings like:

  • I awakened to someone screaming. (too stock, too clich├ęd in its hope to generate excitement)
  • Evelyn knew she was the only person who truly understood her cat. (coy and limiting – how many readers care about her cat?)
  • Girls can differ from boys when it comes to school. (too obvious – this level of opening insight is not like to draw readers farther)

Novelist Elmore Leonard adds “never open a book with weather.” But I wonder, what if it really was a dark and stormy night?

Openings that Worked

Here are some of my favorite openings:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. -- The Last Good Kiss James Crumley

Soon before daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.
The remembering begins out of that new silence. Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s tellings and around the urgings which would have me face about and forget, to feel into these oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all. -- This House of Sky Ivan Doig 1978

At nine a.m. the doorbell rang. I couldn’t see who it was because of the high wall surrounding the house, but after a moment’s debate whether I shouldn’t just ignore it, I picked up the crowbar we’d been keeping handy and started across the courtyard to the security door. I’d talked with the girls about getting a gun in the black market but we hadn’t gone that far yet. -- Whiteman Tony D’Souza 2006

About the Author

Young Adult author Charlie Price has lectured at New York’s New School Forum on Writing for Children, has given SCBWI workshops in Asilomar and northern California on Creativity, Writing Process, Pacing and Revision, and has been featured in the Shasta College Distinguished Writer Series. Last November he presented on Mystery Writing at the National Council Teacher’s of English/American Library Association in Las Vegas. He will be writer-in-residence in Fairhope, Alabama, beginning January 2014.

His fourth book, DESERT ANGEL, immediately earned a starred review from Kirkus and made the 2012 Best Book Young Adult list and the Junior Library Guild Selection shortlist. A major television/film company bought its option.

His fifth book, Dead Girl Moon, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, comes out October 25th. Dead Connection and Desert Angel have also been bought by Random House, London, UK, and will be translated for world distribution. Thierry Magnier, Paris, has published all four books in French translation.

Raised in Colorado and Montana, Charlie graduated from Stanford in the late 60's and has lived in Italy, New York City, Oakland, and Mexico before settling in Northern California. From street schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to locked psychiatric units, to Academic Dean in a therapeutic boarding school, he has worked with adolescents and adults in trouble since the early seventies. Currently he consults and coaches for public and private agencies.

Charlie has been delightfully married for the past thirty years and, in spite of abundant flaws, he's a decent guitar player, fly-fisherman, and free throw shooter. He currently lives on a river in Northern California.

Visit Charlie's website
Check out Charlie's blog

About the Book

A taut thriller about Angel, a 14-year-old who is pursued by a man who has a deadly need to silence her.

In a keenly evoked California desert setting, Angel desperately seeks to escape. Inadvertently, she finds help with a group of caring Mexican-American neighbors, who refuse to let her face her nemesis alone. A loner, Angel’s been homeschooled by a meth-addict mother who has hooked up with a “long string of abusive boyfriends picked with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile.” Her latest, Scotty, is a doozy, and when Angel finds her mom buried in the desert, he realizes she can put him behind bars. A hunter of contraband, he proceeds to use all his wiles to keep her quiet. Neighbor Abuela makes a plan to help her escape, resulting in the entire family becoming targets. Angel struggles with trust, guilt and maintaining her focus even as she is frightened to death. Suspense never lets up, as the third-person narrator monitors Scotty’s pursuit when Angel doesn’t. Kids and their teacher at a Head Start classroom provide a sense of normalcy and yet are clearly potential victims, upping the ante even more. The small, decaying towns, the Salton Sea and the desert heat provide a vivid backdrop for the unfolding drama. Angel is a tough heroine who needs help but knows if she accepts it, she is risking other lives, too.

Relentless, heart-stopping suspense. (Thriller. 12 & up)

Buy DESERT ANGEL on Amazon
Find DESERT ANGEL on Goodreads


  1. Excellent! I've read about the hook being a promise to readers, just as the opening credits to a movie is a promise to viewers. My good ones I've rewritten a bunch, too. I still have a lot to learn, though. I love the examples you posted!

  2. Don't forget the popular, cliched beginning in romance, where the heroine wakes up to find a stranger in the bedroom, and all the heroine can think about is how hot he is. Not a good way to start a novel--unless maybe it's a thriller and she's about to be killed. And then maybe she should be thinking of screaming and running. :)

    Great post, Charlie.

  3. Great advice! Love the beginnings you've showcased - all powerful! :)


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