Monday, December 10, 2012

10 Inspired Openings: The Truth about Opening a Novel with Life or Death

It's Monday, which means that we have a brand new set of revisions up in the First Five Pages December Workshop. Hope you'll hop on over and tell the participants what you think and see how they applied the suggestions from each other, workshop mentors, and our guest mentor J. Anderson Coats.

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

As writers there’s nothing more terrifying than File>New Document - except maybe that big white space underneath the words “Chapter One.” Filling that space with something meaningful, gripping, and full of voice will be our biggest challenge, much greater than finally being able to type “The End.”

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).


  1. I had to cut a chapter and a half out of my WIP to find the opening line. But the book is so much better for it. I may wind up cutting even more by the final draft, but we shall see.

    I like those opening lines you listed. A line doesn't have to open with life and death, exactly, in order to catch a reader's interest. Although my favorite is still the first line from one of the Dresden books: "The hotel was on fire, and it wasn't my fault."

    1. Kessie, I LOVE that line. It not only opens up action, but it speaks so much to character. That's what so utterly brilliant about it.

      Good for you for cutting those pages. That takes a ton of guts. Good luck with the WIP!


  2. Oh yes Kessie, that's a beautiful one! Thanks for commenting!

  3. This is something I'm struggling with for my new WIP. There's a reason I wrote the opening the way I did, and my CP said it worked. But I made sure I added something right away so you'd feel sympathetic toward the mc. Without it, the opening fell flat, since you didn't care if she survived or not. There was no emotional connection to her.

    Great post, Mindy.

    1. Stina - in the end, if you can sell it to your CP, it might be working. Try cold-reading it to some people that you don't usually use as CP's and see if it flies.

  4. I guess it does take a lot of guts to chop-suey your novel. If I've saved what ever I take out, I don't mind being relentless with the "sculpting" of my work. Um, so far. Saving this post. thanks.

    1. Karen - guts, and my editor :) I told my editor that in the past I've always felt like I know my story best, and that when I read authors thanking their editors for making their story "stronger," I would kind of smirk to myself. But I have an *excellent* editor, and she did a fantastic job of guiding me through the "sculpting" process.

      But I also have an Apple Time Machine, so highlighting large chunks and hitting Delete wasn't as frightening with that piece of equipment behind me :)

  5. This is so very true. Until the reader has gained some kind of care or concern for the character, a violent opening is just violent. The care unformed so what happens doesn't resonate with the reader.

    1. Yes, exactly. It's an opening I see used and abused far too often. Not to mention that with our desensitized culture, if we all open with violence everyone is going to have to up the ante and pretty soon... well, pretty soon it's just chaos and anarchy.

  6. My favorite opening paragraph is from Dick Francis' Straight: "I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me."

    It is such an odd combination of things to inherit--I had to read more.


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)