Monday, February 19, 2018

8 Keys To Opening Your Story The Right Way



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

So far in my thread of the Grow An Author series, I've talked a lot about getting ready to write. Here is a list of my posts so far, in case you need to catch up:

From Story Spark to Story Blurb
How To Effectively and Efficiently Do Research
Ideas for How To Organize Your Research Notes
The Three Things You Need To Answer About Your Main Character

Even with all this work, I'm still not ready to dive full-on into my first draft. There's more planning to be done. But I've learned the hard way that I'm not a very good planner unless I have written a few chapters. I don't really understand why that is, but it's pretty common among novelists.

How do you know where to start your story? Writers ask this a lot, and I have a not-so-helpful answer that I will follow up with a more details answer.

The not helpful answer: For me, it's a gut thing.

We all have parts of writing that come more naturally to us than others, and for me, my instincts with where to begin my story nearly always serve me well. I know lots of other writers who have to "write their way" to their beginning, who almost always scrap the first few chapters they write, so if that's you, don't despair.

But that it's "a gut thing" isn't terribly helpful, is it? So here are eight elements that I feel are key to creating a compelling story opening.



Start with your main character


It's almost always a good idea to begin with your main character. This is likely why the reader has picked up your book. To read about this character and their story, so it usually works best to begin with them. 

You can probably name books that you know and love that don't do this. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the first one that pops to mind for me. So while I think it can work to ignore this bit of advice, I think most stories are served best by beginning with the main character.

Start with your main character doing something interesting and pertinent


You have maybe heard the writing advice to start "in media res" or in the middle of action. I do agree with this, though I do wish whoever first said it would have added to start with action, "that matters."

For example in The Hunger Games, we begin with Katniss sneaking out to go hunting, which is both interesting and something that's important later in the story.

Skip the "here's what you've missed" info-dumpy opening


Just don't do it.

There aren't many things that I'll come right out and say, "Never do this," but this is one. Yes, I know you see bestselling authors do this. I don't know why their editors are okay with it, I really don't. I'm actually reading a book right now from an author who I love, but the first TWO CHAPTERS are all backstory. I kept thinking things like, "If this wasn't this particular author, I would have already closed this book." And, "When does the story actually start?"

I know it's easy to believe that if the reader doesn't know all these things that happened in the main character's past, or in your fantasy storyworld's history, they won't be able to adequately appreciate or understand what's going on. But your job in the first chapter is to show the reader why they should be intrigued by this character, not to tell them every single thing they need to know.

It's like when you meet someone for the first time, and you have a bit of a crush on them. You're intrigued by them. You want to know more. You don't need to know everything about themoften it's better if you don'tand you still feel that this is a person you want to spend more time with. 

That is what you're trying to create for you reader, and I have yet to read an info dump opening that does this.

Start with action that says something about who the main character is, and why we should care about them.


Going back to The Hunger Games, the reason that opening scene works so well is that Katniss isn't just doing something interesting and intriguing. What she's doing also says something about who she is. She's a provider. She's responsible. She takes care of her own. These are traits of hers that make us care about her, and make us want to find out what happens next.

Start in the character's normal world.


It's helpful for readers to see what kind of life this character is used to, but we don't need very much, and it doesn't have to be a completely normal day either. In The Hunger Games, it's the Reaping day. We see just a glimpse of what Katniss's everyday existence is like, and that's enough.

In Cars we see Lightning McQueen tearing it up on the race track and nearly-winning with no help from anyone else. That's his normal world.

In Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Harry is having a terrible birthday at the Dursleys', like always. 

Sometimes what's helpful for me is to consider how I can portray a normal day, but with a twist. For Katniss, it's an ordinary day, except she knows the reaping is coming. For Lightning McQueen, it's another race, only this time it's a tie. And for Harry Potter, he's used to terrible birthdays, but on this one, Dobby the house elf shows up.

Start with hints of what they want, what they need, and the barrier between



This, of course, doesn't mean stating, "Harry had been neglected all his life, and what he wanted more than anything was to belong somewhere." This means finding a clever way to show the audience what the character lacks. (And it's not always what the character thinks they lack.)

Lightning McQueen wants to win the Piston Cup so he can have the best racing sponsor. What he really needs is friends and people who love him just as he is. The barrier keeping Lightning from this is his own ego. We see all of this in the first few minutes of the movie.

Consider your tone



Another danger with blindly following the "start with action" advice is that writers sometimes will pick an interesting, action-filled, whizbang of an opening ... that doesn't match the tone of the rest of the novel. A cozy mystery doesn't open the same way as a historical romance. Chapter one of a middle grade adventure novel doesn't sound like epic fantasy.

If you're already following the above advice, having a mismatched opening isn't very likely to happen to you, but it's something to be on the lookout for if you're trying to amp up the action in the beginning.

Create questions



More than anywhere else in the novel, in your first pages you want to create questions in the reader's mind. Why did this character wake up scared? Why is she sneaking out? What is she afraid of? What's so important that she's risking getting into trouble? These are a few of the questions that I raised when I wrote the opening of Within These Lines, and they were all answered within a few paragraphs. You're not trying to frustrate your reader by never answering any questions. You're just trying to evoke their curiosity.

Here are the first few hundred words of Within These Lines. After, I'll give a brief summary of how I think this fits the above criteria. (Besides my editor, you guys are the first to read any of it!)

Chapter One: Evalina
Saturday, March 21st, 1942
3 months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor
San Francisco, California

When I jolt awake, the familiar fear smothers my early morning thoughts and thrums through my veins. I gasp for breath, as if there’s a shortage of oxygen, until I convince my rhythm to slow.

No light comes into my room—too early—but I draw back a panel of my gingham curtains and peek outside anyway. Just to reassure myself that it’s all still there—my narrow street, the houses of my neighbors, my entire world.

And there it is, the sound that roused me from my fearful slumber. The faint squeak of bicycle pedals as the paperboy pushes himself up our steep hill. When I look closely at the front door of the house across the street, I spot the newspaper lying across the front step like a welcome mat. 

The planks of my wooden floor creak as I slip out my door, past Mama and Daddy’s quiet bedroom, down the narrow, steep staircase, and out the front door. Even in the dim lighting of the streetlamp, the bold headline of the San Francisco News reaches up and grabs at my heart:

FIRST JAPANESE READY TO LEAVE COAST

No, no, no my heart pounds as I reach for the newspaper.

How can you know something is coming, spend every waking moment with it gnawing at you, and still feel a jab of shock when you see it begin?

I devour the article that details how over sixty Japanese Americans living in Los Angeles have voluntarily gone to Manzanar—a place in southern California I had never heard of until earlier this month—to prepare to receive new residents.

“Evalina?” 

I jump at Mama’s groggy voice. “Hi. I didn’t mean to wake you. I just couldn’t sleep.”

With her puffy eyes, Mama looks at the newspaper in my hand. Her mouth is set in a grim line. “This obsession is not healthy, Evalina. I know you’re worried, but we have nothing to fear. I don’t know what it will take for you to believe that.”

“Mama, they’re going to make all the Japanese go.” My voice cracks. “Even the ones who were born here. Like the Hamasakis’s children.”

“Who?”

I swallow. I shouldn’t have mentioned them by name. “One of our produce suppliers at Alessandro’s.”

“Oh. Yes, of course.” Mama stifles a yawn, seeming unaware of how far I tipped my cards. “You’re safe, honey. I know sometimes those articles make it sound like Italians are going to be rounded up too, but we’re not.”

“If the government was being fair, we’d be forced to go too. Especially a family like ours—”

“But we’re not. Stop looking for trouble, and come inside before somebody sees you looking indecent.”

I’m wearing my favorite pajamas, which have long pants and long sleeves, but Mama hates that I bought them in the men’s department. I shuffle back inside the house, and Mama soundlessly closes the door.

She scowls at me in the gray light of the entryway. “I’m going back to bed. I’m tired of these conversations, Evalina. I’m tired of waking up to you crying. Or hearing from your friends that you’re distracted and preoccupied by the news. This is not normal behavior for a girl your age.”

“Our country is at war.” I force my voice to be soft. “What am I supposed to act like?”

Mama’s mouth opens. I’m wearing away the thread of patience she woke up with—I can see it in her eyes—but I don’t know how to lie about this. Why, I’m not sure, because I’m certainly lying about plenty of other things.

“Evalina…” Mama takes several thoughtful breaths before saying. “I’m going back to bed. You do the same.”



Start with your main character: Done. Again, there are times when I've seen writers start with not-the-main character and it works fine, but I think those are exceptions.

Start with your main character doing something interesting and pertinent: Evalina is sneaking out of the house to get the morning paper, which is interesting behavior for a teenage girl, and directly relates to the main plot.

Skip the "here's what you've missed" info-dumpy opening: Done. Other than when I spell out when and where we are in the chapter header, which is customary for historical fiction, the reader hits the ground running with minimal information.

Start with action that says something about who they are, and why we should care about them: From this scene, we know that Evalina cares deeply about something that is happening around her, but not really to her. Anytime you can show a main character caring about something that's bigger than them, that's attractive to readers.

Start in their normal world: I considered starting before the bombing, which would really be Evalina's true normal world, but when I learned the timing of when the Japanese Americans were evacuated, I decided after would serve the story better.

Start with hints of what they want, what they need, and the barrier between: This is just the first 600 words so you don't get the full picture, but we see what's pressing on Evalina's heart, and you even get a hint of why this issue matters to her so much when she mentions the Hamasaki family by name to her mother. The barrier that's implied is that these are government decisions, and Evalina is a teenage girl with no power of her own.

Consider your tone: I wanted my opening to show the panic and uncertainty that saturated this time in history. That's why I have Evalina jolting awake from a dream about a bomb, and sneaking out of bed to find out what new, scary things have happened in the world.

Create questions: Some of the questions the scene evokes get answered very quickly. (Why is she sneaking downstairs? Oh, to read the newspaper.) Other questions are raised but not answered, like why is Evalina nervous that she "tipped her hand" by bringing up the Hamasakis? Or what else is she lying about?


Take a look at the openings of your stories. Do you feel like they're doing a good job of setting up the story you want to tell?



29 comments:

  1. Perfect timing! I've been giving this a lot of thought lately. So far in my sci-fi WIP, my attempts at openings have all been particularly awful. I knew I wasn't supposed to do the whole info-dumpy thing, but I stuck it in for my own benefit I guess. However, reading this post just now, I think the perfect opening came to me.

    My MC and her father out on a heist. So there they are, in some rich person's house on the edge of Tucson, Arizona. Everything imaginable goes wrong, but they're still smiling even after they have to jump out the window.

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    1. Hahaha! That sounds like a great opening to me! As long as your genre is obvious in that first scene, the idea sounds perfect. I would totally keep reading, and I'd probably be grinning too by that point!

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    2. I love it!

      And sometimes we need the info dumpy stuff initially but find we can take it out later. That's what edits are for :)

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  2. Just started writing my first book, and wasn't sure how to start it off, so I opened GoTeenWriters, and this SHOWED UP!!! wow. Quick question, is info-dumpy too much if it consists of ~2 paragraphs?

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    1. Wow, your first book? That is so exciting! Beginning your first book is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you know. ;)
      Until Mrs. Morrill provides her expert opinion, is it okay if I answer? I think the amount of backstory and surrounding details you put in your opening chapter should depend on just how much is needed. It also works best if sprinkled rather than dumped; sometimes the character will contemplate about something important for a couple of paragraphs, but only as it applies to the current situation. Any information you put in should serve a purpose, be it helping the reader visualize the area, setting up a social or military conflict, or hinting at why a certain character reacts to the inciting incident as he/she does. I think as long as your "info-dump" serves the goal of your scene (and is not by itself the first thing read), then it's okay to take a couple of paragraphs to clarify some important things the reader should know.

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    2. Olivia's advice is great. Maybe later you'll find you can cut it, or you'll find better ways to slip it in, but for now you don't need to worry about it. Just have fun and enjoy! Congratulations!

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    3. Thanks Olivia and Mrs. Morrill! I'm really excited!
      Another question :)
      Do you have any posts about writing in past vs. present tense from the first person?

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  3. Wow, thank you for that sneak peek of Between These Lines, Mrs. Morrill! I can't wait until I can read the whole thing! You have a beautiful writing voice, and you crafted that opening scene just right.
    I read Hooked, by Les Edgerton this last year, and while the examples he used were more mature than I liked, it was really helpful when I decided to rewrite my opening scene. I began with the inciting incident of my MC running into a boy in the woods and deciding to help him rescue his friend. It shows the personalities of these two important characters, portrays the MC as a foreigner with a negative view of the people who live in this new area (normal life), and has him surprised at himself for agreeing to help (active change). My critique partners made sure I put enough context of the area in it, since I was giving info-dumping too wide of a berth, and I think it's a pretty good opening. However, since I just recently figured out my genre, I need to work the alternate reality situation into the beginning. I'm considering having a prologue in which an outsider gets transported into the alternate world just long enough to deliver a bottle of antivenin to a waiting stranger. This will introduce the speculative nature of my story, mirror the title (Antivenin), and create intrigue as to what this world is, why one bottle of antivenin is the only thing the waiting stranger chooses, who the stranger is, and for whom the medicine will be used. Unfortunately, it's disjointed enough from the rest of the story (not to mention written from the perspective of a character who has no active involvement in the rest of the plot) that I'm not sure how well it will work. Do you have any suggestions, Mrs. Morrill?

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    1. Ooo... your story sounds AWESOME!! In my opinion (and I am not a professional), prologues are tricky. In some books, they annoy me, but in other books they work really well. For some of my books, I felt the need for a prologue, but what I like to do in most cases like that is to not actually call it a prologue. I call it Chapter One. I'm not sure if that's a good idea or not, but look at The Sorcerer's Stone. The first chapter could TECHNICALLY be a prologue.
      Your prologue actually has me intrigued. Obviously, I don't know nearly as much about the story as you, but I know that some things can usually be explained over the course of the story, rather than telling the reader right off. If you think the prologue feels out of place, maybe you could try giving the reader bits of necessary information along the way? (I know from experience that's easier said than done, and who knows, maybe this information is necessary to the reader at the beginning.) That's my experience with prologues, anyway. Feel free to take it or leave it; I've just made those observations from lots of reading and writing. xD

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    2. Thank you, Talia!
      I agree, the word "prologue" can be a put-off, but I'm not sure if it would fit as a first chapter since its circumstances are so different from those of the rest of the book. I'll definitely consider that option, though. I may be able to pull off your second suggestion, too, if I can think of a good way to do it. Thank you for replying!

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    3. First, Olivia, thank you for your compliments :)

      Prologues are something that editors, agents, and writers have very strong opinions about. I've read some that work great, and others where I'm like, "Uh, what was the purpose of that?"

      I say there's no harm in trying it and seeing what you think. So long as it's interesting and the information in there matters to the main plot of the story, I think it can work.

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  4. Ooh!!!! A sneak peak. Thanks for sharing! So many great tips and a very timely post for me as I've been considering whether or not to change the opening scene of my novel. Thanks!

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    1. That's always a tricky decision, Ashley! I'm glad this was timed so well.

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  5. Thanks for the post today. I started a book by talking about how this is when everything went wrong. Is that info-dumping?

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    1. This isn't a perfect rule for novel writing, but if you can't show it with a video camera or hear it with a microphone, chances are you've crossed over into telling. Which is sometimes fine, but you want to really watch how much of that you do. Sounds like you're probably telling, but not necessarily info dumping.

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  6. I agree about the beginning of a book kind of being a gut feeling. Somehow I just KNOW when and where all my stories should begin. The one I'm working on right now, though... I think I'm on at least the eighth experimental beginning scene now. Originally I was going to have the main character standing alone at the top of a cliff contemplating life. Boring, because at that point in the story he didn't know anyone else, and I'd have to somehow have him meet these five other really important characters, all during chapter two. I've learned the hard way that bringing in a ton of strangers all at once like that, especially when they end up being important supporting characters, is NOT a good idea. And then I rewrote the first scene, where he was already a member of this super-secret, anti-government gang consisting entirely of main characters (because that's where the story actually starts), and that didn't work either... I think it was still too much information. So... I guess I'm trying to find a balance between starting in the MC's normal world and having him doing something important and pertinent, but without confusing the reader but also without info-dumping.
    I would share about another beginning that I am actually very happy with, but I tend to ramble when it comes to my personal writing process, so I won't. :)
    By the way, your excerpt from "Within These Lines" was awesome. Based on your previous descriptions of it, I had already made up my mind that I would like to read it, and the first few hundred words totally confirmed it. :)
    Thanks for the post!

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    1. Hey, at least you've written several possibilities and have options. One author I follow was saying that listing out options when you're stuck is a good way to get unstuck. Like, brainstorm various options and then choose the best one. As opposed to me at times, where I fail to even start writing because I can't decide on the one-and-only-best-in-the-world-killer opening. And I haven't even written anything yet!

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    2. Talia, you're so sweet :)

      I was going to say something similar to David, which is that I think it's great to try several things if it doesn't feel like you've landed on quite the right opening. Sometimes we freeze when we think we need to have the perfect one right away.

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    3. Hmmm... would it work to start the scene with your MC and one other important character? Perhaps they're doing a small job together that starts out pretty quietly. Maybe the character is weighing the costs of being part of that organization? One thing that helps me is identifying what event changes the current condition of the story, forces the characters to make a decision, and reveals the story problem. Based on this inciting incident, I at least have a general idea of where my beginning needs to be. Figuring out from there can still be tricky, though, and critique partners may be your most valuable tool.
      I tend to ramble about writing, too. ;) Best of luck with your opening!

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  7. Thanks for sharing a sneak peak of Within These Lines! I can't wait to read it!
    The story I'm working on right now has been going for several years, so the story beginning has changed a few times, but I think I've found the spot that feels right for the story to start. I start with a couple narration paragraphs that have just a little backstory, but I don't think I would call them info-dumping... Then I open with my main character preparing for the day. Very uninteresting, but (yes, I do have a but) she's thinking about a feeling that she gets when something bad is going to happen. Throughout her bland morning, she thinks about that, and there's a little action in the middle of chapter one, (although I wouldn't call that the beginning.) So, who knows. It will probably stay, but it might not.

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    1. Maggie, when I talk about info dumping, I'm talking about books that have multiple pages of backstory right in the first chapter, or as the actual opening. What you've done sounds like it might have some background info dropped in here or there, but that's fine.

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  8. Thank you so much for this post, Stephanie! Opening scenes are definitely something I struggle with. :)

    Also, I LOVE that sneak peek! IT'S SO AMAZING. Is there a potential release date for Within These Lines, yet?

    I hope your week is wonderful!

    Liv // livkfisher.blogspot.com

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    1. You're so sweet, Liv! Early 2019, but I don't know which month yet. I'll keep you posted!

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  9. Like Gwen mentioned, the timing of this post is perfect, Stephanie. I'm working on my novel's opening right now, with several ideas of how to start into the story. I've been looking at what fundamentals are in a good opening, and you're post was very helpful. I especially found Point 3 beneficial, your line "But your job in the first chapter is to show the reader why they should be intrigued by this character, not to tell them every single thing they need to know." To me, that clarified the balance required to hint at backstory while keeping the story moving.
    Anyway, all great points. And good job on Within These Lines' opening! You hooked me for sure.

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    1. Thank you, David! It's such a tough balance - what to reveal, what to hold back. Because you also don't want to confuse or frustrate the reader too much. I find I'm always tinkering with the level of information I share in an opening.

      Good luck with your story!

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  10. I've been struggling with how to begin my story so this is another super helpful post (as always, though), thank you!

    -Gray Marie | graymariewrites.blogspot.com

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  11. Thanks for this! I've been editing my WIP for a while, but I thought I had the opening down. After reading this post, though, I looked back at it, and I finally realized that I did have a bit of an info-dump problem (an explanatory flashback I added during a previous round of edits). I'd had doubts about it before, but now I actually have a plan to fix the problem, and I feel much better about my opening scene. So--thanks again for this post!
    ~J

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  12. I've been brainstorming how to fix my WIP's beginning, so this post has great timing for me too! Some of these points are confirming a new idea I've been stewing over. :)

    Regarding the need to start with your main character... what do you do with a story that is set in motion when the protagonist has just been born? My story is a Sleeping Beauty retelling, and the christening scene is integral to the rest of the plot. I tell it through the eyes of the youngest fairy--who is an important character throughout the novel and has several POV scenes--but the main character is really the princess. (And later the prince, but that's besides the point.) Is it risky to introduce the reader to the fairy, only to switch to the princess for much of the story?

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