Beautiful writing alone doesn't do it


This week's Ask Me Anything question comes from L.P. in Houston, Texas:

What are the most important elements of a story opening?

I’ll give you both the "best of all possible worlds" answer AND the "down and dirty" answer. :)

To take the latter first, my feeling is that voice + emotion do the most to seduce a reader into a story. Beautiful writing ALONE doesn't do it. The narrative should convey an editorial dimension that lets us know there's a real character, a real beating heart behind the words. Added to that, if you can introduce some practical or emotional mystery into the opening text, even something subtle (though not obscure), you'll likely compel the reader to keep reading.

A "best of all possible worlds" scenario would add a few more elements: a sense of the story's genre; the introduction of a goal of some kind, even if it's not yet related to the central mission of the story; and an indication of the person your protagonist will become. Often, I'll ask clients and workshop students to list a few adjectives to describe who their main character is at the END of their novel's journey. Then I'll ask them what indication, if any, we have of those traits--or the potential for those traits--as the story begins.

Obviously, a novel largely concerns itself with a character's acquisition of strengths, so they needn't be in heavy evidence at the beginning of the story. But we do need that feeling of potential, of a protagonist's ability to drive the narrative, of his or her passion about SOMETHING, and a will to succeed. It can be the tiniest of successes and the most minimal desire, but when protagonists are inert, victimized, and only acted UPON in the beginning of the story, there's little to prompt the reader forward.

I'd say the same for static, expository openings: passages of description; of backstory or world-building; summaries of just about anything. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but most successful exceptions--the opening of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson comes to mind--give us an awful lot in the realm of voice and emotion. Not to mention mystery and tension!

It may feel like an awful lot to cram into a few hundred words, which is why people agonize so much over story openings. But all of that time and angst is worth it for creating that amazing feeling of anticipation in the reader. Now, you just have to deliver on the next 80K words or so!

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