Friday, January 28, 2011

The Do's and Don'ts of Opening Pages

It was a dark and stormy night...
A familiar opening, right? And maybe a little cliche. No matter what stage we're at in our writing, most of us know that beginning lines, paragraphs, and pages are some of the most important parts of a novel. Not only do you want to draw in readers when they finally get their hands on your books, but you want to draw in that all important agent or editor.

Many agents will give you a chance to wow them with your writing, either with an initial request of the first scene or the first five to ten pages of your manuscript along with your query, or with a request for a partial. This may be the only chance you have to show them what you've got.

Just like the cliche line above, there are other ways of opening a novel that will have a hard time enticing an agent or reader to move on.


* Include a prologue that is extremely long or wordy, or ultimately has nothing to do with the novel.

* Get carried away with description of any sort but fail to either make it have purposeful meaning to the story or do it in a unique way.

* Begin with another type of cliche, such as a character going through a scene and then they end up waking up and it was only a dream/nightmare.

* Go on and on about a character doing menial tasks that fail to draw the reader in.

* Have a lot of description, dialogue, or even internal thoughts but fail to give the reader any framework for the story (i.e. no hint of setting, time, etc.)

Those are just a few things to avoid in the beginning of your story. While there's not a perfect formula to writing the beginning lines or paragraphs of a story, there are a few ways to start off a story that will help draw a reader in.


* Showcase your voice. Give the reader a taste of what your writing style is like. Let them know you can be unique.

* Make the reader want more. Make them want to turn the page to find out what's going to happen.

* Introduce an interesting character or a character who has something at stake. Or create an immediate obstacle.

* Incite questions from a reader, either by adding conflict, tension, or something unusual or funny.

* Create action. Move your characters and their story by jumping in the middle of a scene/conversation with action, and characters being proactive.

Ultimately there's no perfect way to start a story. But you can beef up those first pages by being unique and giving the reader a reason to turn the page.

What kinds of openings have or haven't worked for you? What do you enjoy seeing in first pages?


Misha Gerrick said...

Good tips.

I've never thought about opening lines like this.

All I do is try to write something that isn't a total cliche.


Laura Pauling said...

I think you pretty much covered it - and not to actually do it! Easier said than done!

Beth K. Vogt said...

I like the "Start five minutes into the scene" rule. And I also find myself starting with dialogue--sometimes internal dialogue.

Gia Cooper said...

I started a novel with my character staring down at her husband's bloody face, as he lay dead on the kitchen floor...

I think the reader would have kept reading. ;)

The first few sentences are key. Not only for a reader, but for an agent or publisher.

Susan R. Mills said...

Finding the right beginning is always a struggle for me, but I think I'm getting better the more I write.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Excellent post, Cindy! I've done both extremes in my early writing days. In my first m/s, I started out with the character driving through a thunderstorm. Yikes!

Then in the second, I went the other extreme and dropped lots of dialogue and action right in the beginning with giving NO sense of where they were. Multiple contest judges said, "Give a better sense of the setting in the beginning." So I guess I'm still trying to find the perfect balance. :)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Misha, I think that's one of the best things you can do because it's showing you can be unique :)

Laura, you're so right about it being easier said than done. It's one thing to know what readers and agents like to see but quite another to sit down and make it happen.

Beth, I like the "Start five minutes into a scene" rule. It helps even if you've already written something--gives you a chance to skip forward and find where the story really starts.

Gia, sounds like something that would make me turn the page :) Those first few sentences can say a lot, can't they?

Susan, it's funny that it's only the first page or first few pages of a book but it's soooo important, right? The more we practice, the more we learn, though :)

Sarah, I know what you mean about the perfect balance. I've done those cliche beginnings, too, and had no idea that what I was writing was pretty much a no-no. Good thing we get more than one chance to learn and grow!

Casey said...

Great list of tips, Cindy! I love an opening that clearly outlines the characters with some kind of (nearly) immediate incident. I say nearly because I like to get a page or so glimpse into "them". I picked up Kathryn Cushman's latest last night and could barely put it back down. What a start!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I liked the opening of The Thirteenth Tale, maybe b/c the woman loved books. ;)

Great do and don't list!
~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

It took me two years (as I was writing my first novel) to understand the don't...s of an opening page...especially the over describing part.

Good post. Informative.

Tana said...

Great post Cindy! I spend more time editing my first few pages than I do most of the book.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Casey, I love stories like that! And what great inspiration to write our own stories that completely sweep away a reader.

Wendy, so glad you said that! It reminds me of a great point that wasn't in the post. Drawing in a reader with either a situation/circumstance that's relatable or a character that's relatable is a great way to engage an audience.

Henya, I think as a beginning writer that's one of the hardest things to overcome. Kind of like showing not telling. But writing those first novels are great ways for us to learn and grow. Hope you have a great weekend!

Hi T. Anne, I think that's probably a lot of us. When those first pages shine, they really set up the rest of the story and the rest is less complicated to let unfold. At least most of the time :)

Jennifer Shirk said...

Openings are hard for me too. I know in the end I will go back and rewrite it. :)
But I love an opening where I immediately gain a sense of the main character and the tone of the story. Or sometimes I read a book and something is happening to the character and I don't realzie that I'm already 20 pages into the book because I was sucked in so fast.

Julie Musil said...

I'm revising my opening right now, and these tips were helpful. Thanks!

Kaye Peters said...

Writing opening scene scare me. I'm comfortable with where I want to take the characters (actually, its more like I'm comfortable where they take me!) but starting them out always troubles me. Most time I give too much in way of details that even I'm bored. Other times its heavy on the dialogue without giving much about where or who these characters are. Its tough for me to find that balance so thank you for your advice!