Monday, November 12, 2012

14 The Don'ts of Great Openings: Guest Post by Katie L. Carroll

Today marks the kickoff of our new Openings series. Lisa and I have moved the First Five Pages Workshop off to its own blog, You can always access the latests workshop entries and revisions by clicking on the guest mentor's picture (or book cover) in the sidebar here on AYACP. The first revisions for this month are posted now. Head over and take a peek, and help us out by jumping in with your comments, encouragement, suggestions, etc., or feel free to lurk and just enjoy having the opportunity to see what you can learn from A.C. Gaughen. But now, I'm going to turn today's post over to Katie L. Carroll to share what she learned about openings that helped her sell her first novel, along with some of her favorite opening lines. Thanks, Katie!

The Dont's of Great Openings

by Katie L. Carroll

When I started writing my first YA novel, which eventually turned into Elixir Bound, I really had no idea what it meant to write a good novel at all, never mind one with a good opening. To land a publisher or agent, though, a great—not good—opening is crucial.

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 Clich√©

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 clich√©, 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

Katie Carroll began writing after her 16-year-old sister unexpectedly passed away. Writing was a way to help her sister live on in the pages of a story. Her debut YA fantasy Elixir Bound is about Katora Kase who must decide if she will become guardian of a secret healing Elixir and bind herself to its magic. It is available from the MuseItUp bookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other ebook retailers. Her picture book app The Bedtime Knight released earlier this month from MeeGenius.

Catch Katie on her blog at

Elixir Bound (MuseItUp Publishing, August 2012, ISBN 978-1-77127-140-0)


  1. Great tips, Katie! Yikes, our names are very similar (I'm Kessie Carroll).

    I've heard people gripe about all kinds of openings, like whether or not to open with dialogue (I've heard arguments for both yes and no), whether to start with action or not, and it goes on until there's NO way to open a book. You're right about just going with your gut instinct. I'm not published yet, but I'm inching closer to it all the time. :-)

    1. Hi, Kessie! Too funny about our names!

      Yes, it does seem like for every kind of opening, there's a don't that goes with it. It can be so frustrating. I've also had one person love an opening and another hate it. Sometimes you just have to please yourself.

      Good luck with getting published!

  2. Can I add just one more? Here goes-
    For every one of the DO and DON'Ts above^, there are exceptions. Don't be a slave to "do and don't."

    Enjoyed your post, Katie. As Always.

  3. Great post! A strong opening really makes or breaks a book for me, and especially the backstory issue will make me put something down.

  4. So true, Meradeth. Although, if a book comes recommended by a friend, I'll usually try and slog through a less than stellar beginning. When it comes to grabbing an agent or editor, though, they won't be so forgiving.

  5. Great tips! Great openings are difficult to write but they are soooo worth getting right.

    1. Thanks, Lynda. Absolutely, openings are super hard but worth it.

  6. Thanks for these tips, Katie. Now I must get a copy of your book to see your great opening.
    I also love the double entendre of your title.

  7. Glad you enjoyed the tips, Barbara! I hope you enjoy the books as well.

  8. Good guidelines ;)

    As for "do not open with a generality"...if done sarcastically, you have one my favorite openings of all time (albeit for an older age group):

    "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

    It sets the tone for what's to come. But I'm tired and rambling and should probably get off the Internet.

    Excellent post.

    1. Hi, Beth! Just goes to show that breaking the rules does pay off sometimes, especially when you're as brilliant as Jane Austen.

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