Monday, June 3, 2013

8 Three Tips for Nailing Your Novel's Opening by Cassandra Rose Clarke

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors gave a piece of advice that has stuck with me. It was a lecture in an undergraduate writing class (I was the TA). She said, “Starting a story is hard, and it’s okay if all you do when you’re starting one is to write the first line.”

It was a revelation to me, even if I was the class TA. I’d never thought about story starts that way, even though I’d experienced it over and over again: starting a story is hard. The point my professor was making is that you can spend an entire writing session coming up with that perfect opening, because once you’ve got that down, the rest of the story will flow from that sentence or paragraph. And while I’m sure that doesn’t work for everyone, it definitely works for me. I rarely revise first lines (The Pirate’s Wish was an exception, although there was a reason for it), because I allow myself, as my professor suggested, to work to find the perfect one.

Start When Your Character's Life Begins to Shift
That said, there are certain criteria I try to keep in mind when I’m searching for the perfect opening line. The first is one of those borderline-cliche pieces of writing advice that drift around the Internet, like Show Don’t Tell and Avoid Showy Dialogue Tags: Start When Something Changes. The idea is that your story should start when the character’s life is shifting in some way. Personally, I like to go with small shifts that then ripple out to larger ones. I call it The Big Lebowski Principle, because pretty much everything that happens in that movie stems from the moment when the Dude’s rug is ruined by nihilists.

In The Assassin’s Curse, that small shift happens when the main character, Ananna, is introduced to her betrothed. In The Pirate’s Wish, the small shift happens when Naji senses a change on the air — which signifies the introduction of a new character.

Build a Sense of Mystery
The second bit of criteria I consider when crafting an opening is a sense of mystery. I’m always the most drawn into stories where the opening lines make me curious. One of the most famous opening lines of all time is from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” It’s a line that raises questions simply by existing, the biggest of which is Why. Why did this happen? And what’s Samsa going to do about it? The story appears when those questions are answered. A great opening line knows how to handle that push-pull.

Add a Bit of Poetry
Finally, the third bit of criteria has to do with how the opening sounds. I like writing that’s beautiful, that has a poetry to it, and I think nowhere is that more important than in the first sentence. I want to feel the rhythm of the book from the get-go!

Writing the Opening of The Pirate’s Wish:
I originally wrote The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish as one long book that I then split in half. Finding a strong opening for The Pirate’s Wish was tricky, because I was still thinking of it as the halfway point of a story, rather than the beginning of one. In addition to drawing the reader in, I had to set the scene all over again, reminding old readers and informing new ones of who the characters were, where they were, and what they were doing.

The big thing that helped me when it came to reworking the opening was to go to my Book Opening Criteria, listed above. In particular I considered the first two points. I wanted to start with something changing, and I wanted to create a mystery. Fortunately, I chose to split the original super-book at the introduction of a new character, and I used that new character as a way of showing chane and generating interest.

My Favorite Openings:
One of my favorite openings isn’t from a novel, but from a short story. It’s the opening paragraph to Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind”:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

I also love the opening sentence to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, so much so that I referenced it in the opening of my adult novel, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”


Cassandra Rose Clarke is a speculative fiction writer living amongst the beige stucco and overgrown pecan trees of Houston, Texas. She graduated in 2006 from The University of St. Thomas with a bachelor’s degree in English, and in 2008 she completed her master’s degree in creative writing at The University of Texas at Austin. Both of these degrees have served her surprisingly well.

During the summer of 2010, she attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle. She was also a recipient of the 2010 Susan C. Petrey Clarion Scholarship Fund.

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The Pirate’s Wish
Published by Strange Chemistry


US/Canada Release: June 4, 2013 | UK Release: June 6, 2013

Goodreads | Amazon US | Amazon UK | B&N | IndieBound

After setting out to break the curse that binds them together, the pirate Ananna and the assassin Naji find themselves stranded on an enchanted island in the north with nothing but a sword, their wits, and the secret to breaking the curse: complete three impossible tasks. With the help of their friend Marjani and a rather unusual ally, Ananna and Naji make their way south again, seeking what seems to be beyond their reach.
Unfortunately, Naji has enemies from the shadowy world known as the Mists, and Ananna must still face the repercussions of going up against the Pirate Confederation. Together, Naji and Ananna must break the curse, escape their enemies — and come to terms with their growing romantic attraction.

“Thrilling action combines with surprising character revelations in this satisfying sequel.” – Kirkus Reviews


  1. This is so timely, since I'm still struggling with my beginning. I still don't like it! But I can see it slowly getting better.

    1. Hi Beth,

      It's hard to nail that perfect sentence, isn't it? I really loved what Cassandra had to say.

      Hope your writing is going well!

  2. Cassandra, thank you so much for joining us on the blog today and sharing your tips and favorite openings. I love your point about taking your time to find the perfect opening sentence. I think that resonates with me more since I'm even more of a planner now than when I began writing. I'm not sure that would have worked for me as well when I was writing from plot instead of theme. It's all part of finding that core idea that is the heart of the story, I suspect.

  3. Congratulations on The Pirate's Wish! Loved this post~ the advice is so succinct and spot-on and I can immediately apply it to my WIP to look for ways to improve my opening. And I love that first sentence in One Hundred Years of Solitude too!

  4. Fantastic advice!! That opening is so important for setting the tone - both in the reader and as the writer. Lover your tips :)

  5. Love the reference to the Big Lobowski. And very interested in The Mad Scientist's Daughter as well as this pair.

  6. Very good advice indeed.

    All the best with, The Pirate’s Wish, Cassandra. It sounds a great read!

  7. These are great tips. I especially like the advice of starting when a character's life shifts in some way. It's far too easy to begin too soon.


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