Aug 13 2010

Blood-Red Pencil’s Tips on How to Write a Strong Opening: Act First, Explain Later

This advice about how to write a strong introduction strikes me as mostly effective.

1.  Don’t begin with a long description of the setting or background information.  Do begin with dialogue and action. Agreed.  However, explain enough so that we know what’s going on.  I put down a book on page 2 yesterday because it spent all that time beautifully describing the weather and a man jumping out of a helicopter without explaining anything about why the guy came out of the helicopter.  At first, it wasn’t even clear whether the person fell out accidentally or jumped.

2.  Don’t start with a character other than your protagonist. You may wish to consider starting with the antagonist, but generally I agree with this.  If your side-characters are the most effective hook to your story, you’re writing the wrong story!

3.  Don’t start with a description of past events.  DO jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible. In some cases, the inciting event of the book may have happened before the book starts.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem.  For example, a novel might start with a superhero or homicide detective investigating a crime that has already happened.  As long as you keep the focus on what is happening now (the investigation, for example), covering an event that already happened shouldn’t bog down your plot.  

4.  Don’t start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s. Agreed!  I’d reject pretty much anything that starts with a side-character that shows up once and then disappears.  (Switching between main characters is okay, but a one-and-done narrator is NOT.  Don’t waste our time on a character that isn’t central to the plot).


5. Don’t delay letting your readers get to know your protagonist, or present her in a static, neutral (boring) situation.  Do develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation. Please get to the trouble sooner rather than later.  Also, make sure the main character has a goal early.  Otherwise, the plot tends to drift around in a most uninteresting fashion.

6/7.  Don’t start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life.  Don’t start with your protagonist planning a trip, or traveling somewhere, in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene. I don’t know.  Depending on the character, solitary preparation might be intriguing.  It depends what the foreshadowing is like and what you’re building up to.  I’d MUCH rather read about an unlikely assassin rigging together a sniper rifle out of parts bought at a Home Depot than another student waking up on the first day of school. (Start in the middle of the day unless the character’s morning routine is intensely interesting/unusual).  Dodging police and security cameras for a perfect murder are almost assuredly more interesting than whatever you could do with a school bus. Unless the school bus is the murder weapon.*

*If your assassin ever uses a school bus as a murder weapon, please send me the manuscript at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.

8.  Don’t introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages. I agree very strongly.  If you have more than three characters in, say, the first two pages, I’d recommend checking to make sure they’re all contributing something to the scene.

9.  Don’t leave the reader wondering what the characters look like.  I don’t think this matters much. If you give the readers clues, I think they can fill it in on their own.

10.  Don’t have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her. I would only recommend using a mirror/reflection if the character’s physical preparation is extremely important to the plot–“I want to show what my character looks like” is NOT enough. For example, if the character’s peacocking is important to his personality, showing him laboriously preening in front of a mirror can help develop him in a way that develops the plot.  His brown hair and green eyes, not so much.

11.  Don’t wait too long to introduce the hero (love interest), in a romance or romantic suspense.   Do introduce the hero by the end of chapter one. Is this using “hero” as a synonym for “love interest?”  I’m confused.

12. Don’t spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces. Do introduce the main conflict (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapter. Nice save.  I don’t think it’s terribly important we see the main conflict early on, but we need something. For example, we’ll probably see Peter Parker’s problems at school (bullies, romantic drama, classes, etc) before his villains and/or life as a superhero.

What do you think?

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Blood-Red Pencil’s Tips on How to Write a Strong Opening: Act First, Explain Later”

  1. Steton 13 Aug 2010 at 10:36 am

    I agree with you on everything except 2 and 4. You can begin in a viewpoint other than your main character’s, a la Da Vinci Code, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I think Harry Potter and Jurassic Park–and definitely too many thrillers to mention. As long as it’s well done (which is the eternal caveat), it’s a pretty standard thriller opener. You start with the harried family man driving home, worrying because he forgot to buy milk, and the hitchhiker looms in the back seat and garrotes him.

    I with you on 9 and the save on 12. Struggling through 12 on my current draft. Gack.

  2. Loysquaredon 13 Aug 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Maybe, the “hero/love interest” debacle, is more like an [insert here] or [choose the more pertinent] kinda thing :/

  3. Lucas Irineuon 13 Aug 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Great post.

    Made me remember of this.
    http://a.imageshack.us/img10/2253/imagemlxo.png
    The best comic book first page ever.

  4. Koryon 16 Aug 2010 at 8:36 am

    I’m going to second what stet said. Primarily as a defense mechanism because my own W.I.P. begins with the final log entry from the captain of a ship who hopes, for the safety of others, that no rescue is attempted. Cut to rescue vessel arriving with protags on board.

    It seemed like a good idea at the time I wrote it… but then again “It seemed like a good idea at the time” put my protags in a world of hurt. Maybe I should listen to my own advice.

  5. Steton 16 Aug 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I do think, Kory, that you need to treat the first scene as if it’s … the first scene in a novel. I mean, maybe it’s a bit of bait and switch, and it’s not the first scene in -this- novel, but you still need to, y’know, use the senses and establish a feeling of urgency and develop character and all of that.

    If the log entry does that, then I think you’re good. If it’s a dry, ‘Stardate 5123.3, the Beemaculans have been invading Federation space while blah blah blah,’ though …

  6. B. Macon 16 Aug 2010 at 8:21 pm

    “If it’s a dry, ‘Stardate 5123.3, the Beemaculans have been invading Federation space while blah blah blah,’ though …” Unless we’re actually talking about a species of suicidal stinging insectoids, I’d recommend “BMaculans.” 😉

  7. B. Macon 16 Aug 2010 at 9:40 pm

    “You can begin in a viewpoint other than your main character’s, a la Da Vinci Code, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I think Harry Potter…” Sales aside, do you think these introductions were effective? I thought that HP got significantly better as soon as Harry became a character and not a prop. I survived HP’s prologue (?) because the voice was interesting, but I don’t feel the chapter overall was as effective as it could have been.

    I had much less trouble when the later books took brief Harry-less tangents. By that point, I think the readers were sufficiently attached to the series that playing with the focus a bit wasn’t a problem.

  8. Wingson 16 Aug 2010 at 10:04 pm

    11. Don’t wait too long to introduce the hero…Do introduce the hero by the end of chapter one.

    Current projects:

    TSBLAD: Darken is introduced in the prologue. Hikari is introduced in chapter 1. Depending on whether I decide to make TSBLAD an Ensemble Piece, all other protagonists are introduced in chapter 2.

    HTSTW: (NOTE: To be rewritten, details may change) Crimson (the antagonist) is introduced in the prologue, but Meg and Ian are introduced in chapter 1. Connor and Pierce are mentioned by name in chapter 2. Darren is introduced in chapter 4, while Jazz has yet to make an appearance by name in the current draft.

    SATMOL: Fiontan and the hermit are mentioned early on, but Nerina/Aria doesn’t show up until midway through.

    – Wings

  9. Steton 17 Aug 2010 at 6:56 am

    Actually, I agree on Harry Potter. A weak start, I thought. But I didn’t like the books. (Didn’t dislike them, either. Read the first couple and though, ‘eh.’)

    Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, I thought the fact that it started with a minor character slightly off-putting, now that I think about it! Possibly effective, but maybe my opinion is too influenced by sales.

    Da Vinci Code I didn’t finish, and disliked entirely–but I -do- think the initial snippet in another POV worked v. well there. Same with most of the Mary Higgins Clark genre. You see three pages of the madman at work, and then chapter two starts with the woman in jeopardy. That works.

    Jurassic Park, if I recall, starts on some remote island, where a picnicking family is killed by some undescribed beast. That works. (If it wasn’t JP, it was similar–that genre, at least. The “monster’s” work is seen first, and then the hero is called.)

    I guess I think it’s okay if the opening is compelling and serves as a direct bridge to the introduction of the main character. If there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between the other-viewpoint opening and the arrival of the mc, I mean. But when I think about it again, I might actually come around to your opinion. Because while I think it sometimes works, I’m not sure if it that necessary means it works -best-. Maybe. Will have to think about that one.

    Wings: Has B. Mac written anything about prologues?

  10. Wingson 17 Aug 2010 at 9:15 am

    There’s How To Write Strong Introductions ( http://www.superheronation.com/2008/05/01/how-to-open-a-novel/ ) and These Six Openings Usually Fail ( http://www.superheronation.com/2008/10/15/these-five-openings-are-wildly-bad/ ) but I don’t think there’s a prologue-specific one yet.

    – Wings

  11. B. Macon 17 Aug 2010 at 9:26 am

    I think publishing professionals are bitterly divided about prologues. So far, I have only encountered a few prologues that I felt were necessary/helpful. Many more tend to be info-dumps minus the appeal of the main character. In most cases, I think a story would be strengthened by just cutting to the material of chapter 1.

    For an info-dump to be effective, I would highly recommend:
    –Developing the narrator voice.
    –Introducing the main character and something interesting about the MC.
    –Staying away from Star Wars-style exposition. “IN A [SETTING], [RECENT BACKSTORY EVENT #1] AND [ANOTHER GROUP’S RESPONSE TO RECENT BACKSTORY EVENT #1].”

    Also, I would only recommend keeping a prologue (rather than just cutting right to chapter 1, or even rewriting the material in the prologue as chapter 1) if the prologue is necessary in some way.

    For example, if the prologue is far removed in time or distance or mood or some other way from the rest of the story, or if you’d like to introduce a throwaway POV, a point-of-view character may be an effective way of hinting to readers that what they’re reading right now isn’t necessarily similar to the rest of the story. However, if at all possible, I would recommend starting the book with material that IS similar to the rest of the story. If you were selling a rap CD, it’d be unwise to use an album cover out of Christian rock and a blues song for the opening number. Readers frequently draw conclusions about the whole of the work from what they see at the beginning, so be as faithful as possible.

  12. Koryon 19 Aug 2010 at 7:15 am

    Well, I have the “log entry” as the prologue.

    I guess I should explain, its not a true log entry. Its a scene with the logger’s POV where she and a few survivors leave a message for anyone who may try to find them. They insinuate but do not directly identify what events put them in their present state with the assumption that earlier log entries cover those subjects.

    The protags later find these people dead, and the ship’s computer wiped. Thus preserving the tension.

    I suppose its like the picnic in Jurassic Park, only we aren’t shown the monster.

    To be honest I had a hard time coming up with a first scene that established enough tension. Otherwise its a humdrum, “Oh hey look there is the ship we were sent to rescue, its in an asteroid field which is pretty dangerous, but lets go for it.” (grossly oversimplified summary)

    If I started further back in the timeline, I think it would have given away too much and the readers would be forced to sit through the rescuers making the same mistakes as the dead previous crew. As Vonnegut put it: “Start as close to the end as possible.”

    It was the best compromise in a bad set of options, buts I feel compelled to write it anyway because it was an itch that must be scratched.

    The other big no-no I broke is that prior to the disaster that does away with half the crew, little of the POV is with the survivors. I was trying to develop preconceptions and prejudices about these characters based on other people’s views of them. Which I then use to alternately reinforce and occasionally subvert once they are left alone and must fend for themselves. I know its kind of risky, but do you think its too risky?

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