Monday, July 20, 2015

Three Keys To A Successful Story Opening

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

Last time I talked about how to write a great first scene. Today it'll feel like I'm backing up because I'm going to talk specifics about first lines/first paragraphs of your story. But most of the time, I have to have an idea of what my first scene is going to look like and where I'm starting the book before I can think of the best way to open.

Same as with opening scenes, there are lots of great ways to structure the first sentence, or first few sentences, of your novel. Whatever you choose, you want to make sure that you're promising the right thing to your reader. That means you don't want to start off with a funny opening if your book isn't humorous. Or something deep and poignant if your book is meant to be a lighthearted adventure story. You want to find an opening that fits the mood of your story, whatever that may be.

Let's examine a few story openings and see what it is they do so well:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortunate, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
This is one of the most famous openings of a novel. What's so great about it? (It's much more fun to ask such questions when you're studying the craft of writing rather than trying to get an A on an English essay!)
  • The tone: With its touch of humor, we get a distinct feeling that we will be smiling frequently throughout this story. That we'll be absorbing this story through a lens of one who is amused by the society they are showing to us.
  • The focus: Miss Austen leaves no doubt as to what the focus of the book will be: marriage. Specifically the marriage of a man with a good fortune who moves into a new neighborhood. The story is in the first line.
  • The perspective: This opening line works because the story is written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. This enables Miss Austen to give us a broad, sweeping view of the set-up.
Let's look at another story with a very different tone:

Broken Wings by Shannon Dittemore
Hell is loud.
Talons scratch at the stone floor and clack against the pillars circling the chamber as the great hall fills. Hisses and snarls sound all around, but the noise doesn't unsettle the Cherub.
She's been here before.
Why does this story opening work so well?
  • The tone: Shannon uses smart word choices to hint at the tone. Words like "hisses" and "snarls" and "clack." This is a dark place, and she paints that for us with her words. There's darkness in this story, but she also makes it clear that the character who's relaying this to us is not normally here with that punch of an opener, "Hell is loud." 
  • The focus: Shannon's series is a book about angels, about a spiritual battle between heaven and hell. You could guess that from this opening even if you hadn't read the back cover copy.
  • The perspective: Same as Pride and Prejudice, we're not opening with the focus on our main character, but Shannon shows the scene through one set of eyes. Therefor we know we're seeing this from the perspective of one character rather than an omniscient narrator.
Let's take a look at a story that does this in first person, with the main character:

This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
The name of the song is "This Lullaby." At this point, I've probably heard it, oh, about a million times. Approximately.
All my life I've been told how my father wrote it the day I was born. He was on the road somewhere in Texas, already split from my mom. The story goes that he got word of my birth, sat down with his guitar, and just came up with it, right there in a room at a Motel 6.
Why is Sarah Dessen's opening so great?
  • The tone: We know almost immediately that we're in the head of a jaded main character. Not dark and brooding, though. Her voice is sarcastic and playful enough that we don't get weighed down by her baggage. Rather, like her, we can almost laugh at it. Which is what the main character is doing as she recounts the story she's been toldthe story that she clearly doesn't quite buy intoabout her father and the song.
  • The focus: While the story isn't about the song in the same sense that Miss Austen's book is about marriage or Shannon's book is about angels, the song is used as a representation throughout the story of why our main character struggles to be close to anybody. Knowing the way she feels about the song unlocks for us the struggle she feels in relationship with others.
  • The perspective: We are in Remy's sarcastic head from beginning to end, and that's clear from the moment we start.
Pull out your manuscript and take a look. How have you done with your tone, your focus, and your POV? Do you feel like you're doing a good job of accurately portraying the mood of your story? Feel free to share your story opening below!


  1. I think the opening in my previous WIP, Illusion, does a pretty good job of setting the tone, focus, and perspective:

    It just doesn’t stand to reason why my very normal life would have to be interrupted by weirdness on the last day of school. Of course, reason isn’t pervading my thoughts at the moment. Only alarm.
    “Stop with this nonsense.” I admonish myself. “You can figure this out.”
    The cause of my distress is a ball of the spherical variety that, up until a few moments ago, I was using to practice a magic disappearing trick.
    Until the ball actually vanished.

    Tone: Kate enjoys analyzing things, but she also treasures her sphere of "normal life", which has just been interrupted. And it's about to be done away with completely.

    Focus: She's just accidentally discovered magic, which is a huge player in the story.

    Perspective: Illusion is told from Kate's POV, first person.

    Thanks so much for this really helpful advice! I'm re-examining certain parts of my story to make sure they communicate what they're supposed to, and this post is super helpful for looking over my beginning. I've never thought of analyzing by Tone/Focus/Perspective. Thanks again!

    1. Your book sounds really interesting Linea, the opening lines are great! Love the title, too :). ~Savannah

    2. Thank you, Savannah!

    3. wow, that sounds really awesome. Just a few lines, and I really want to read the rest!

    4. Thank you!

    5. Great opening, Linea! And your title is awesome :)

    6. Ooooooh...I'm intrigued. I like the personality coming through, as well. :)

    7. Thank you all so much! It's really encouraging to hear that so many folks like it. :)

  2. I didn't know that i needed this until now, but I'm already rewriting my first line:)
    Thanks Mrs. Morrill!

  3. "You know, you're the first man who has ever asked me to show him where these caves are." My guide, a man called Timms, hung his thumbs in his belt loops and peered over my shoulder. I had met him the day before when I arrived in the town of Wheston, capital of the tiny country of the same name. "Most people want to see the ruins of the Wheston fortress...or the House where our ten lords rule the country."
    The sun was sprinkling its early light through the trees overhead. I parted the foliage that covered the cave's entrance, getting my hands wet on the dew that had not yet melted away. "I'm a caver, Timms. Not a tourist," I said, as I shone my light into the dark hole. This was the cave alright. The beam of my light landed on the floor of the cave, some 40 feet down. I'd have to rappel my way into this one.
    ~The Caver's Kiss

    1. I really like this! I can see the character and the setting clearly in my mind.

    2. I like how you start us with action but still take time to set the scene. Nicely done!

  4. The assassin poised silently over the sleeping figure, dagger pointing downward as he tried to fight the accursed fear. Waiting. Listening. His heart threatened to thump its way out of his ribs, his chest loath to give in to the terror the Emperor had prepared so pleasurably for him. The sharp needles poked his face, but he tried to pay them no heed. Not again, not anymore. Below him, the crunch of twigs and gravel made him almost drop the dagger. His heart leapt into his mouth.

    *You fool, Dorlin!*

    -The Assassin's Mercy, a book that started out good but is falling quickly for it has no plot.

    1. Don't get discouraged, Jonathan! Just work out a plot from where you are now and worry about the beginning once you're editing. If you need help with plotting, there are plenty of posts under the "Looking for Something Specific?" tab that can help. I would especially recommend the post "Understanding the Three-Act Structure".

      Hope that helps a little!

    2. Thanks, Linea! I will :). Anyways, this is the first time I've got this far, so that's an accomplishment in itself. Once I'm done even though it'll be a mess it'll be a complete story :).

    3. This has a great mood to it for a story called "The Assassin's Mercy." And I agree with Linea. Keep pressing forward!

    4. I love your opening! Keep on writing :)

    5. I still think "The Assassin's Mercy" sounds like a great story...
      Keep it up!

  5. This is the beginning to my current WIP. I'm not sure how well it does at tone, focus and perspective though.

    "For the rest of his life, Hubert would consider what his life would have been like had he not carried out that dare. Had he not broken the rules and entered the loft. Then he would chase those thoughts out of his head, because they were rarely helpful. They just reminded him how thoroughly he’d failed.
    It happened on a cold March afternoon, when Hubert was still seventeen. Snow lay on the ground outside, with dying pink cylamens just poking through the pale layer. Inside the white townhouse, Hubert was being annoyed to death by his younger sister.

    1. This shows such a strong personality right here. I love it.

    2. I really like this, Esther. I like how you set it up so that we know this is something life altering that's about to happen.

  6. Ooh, love the advice. I've recently read some great posts, here and elsewhere, about beginnings, so I've been thinking about that lately.

    This is the first paragraph of my prologue. "[he]" means that I'm considering changing the character's name and I don't know what to call him yet. :P

    Stars still twinkled in the sky when [he] stirred from his sleep. A dull thud from outside drove him to rise and search for his robe in the dark. Rushing to the door, he opened it and looked outside, his eyes quickly scanning the moonlight-soaked night. He immediately noticed that the guards outside the Silver Hall were not keeping watch, but lying motionless on the ground. His heart clenched as he realized that the door was wide open, thumping against the wall in the wind. He began to run toward the Hall almost in the same instant he saw the shadowy figure moving swiftly toward the woods.

    The man in this part is not the main character of the story, but he is a very important character and kind of gets things kick-started later. What's happening is the event that drives the rest of the story and sets the characters' goals, as well as leading up to the climax later. Sort of like the battle with Sauron at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.

    1. I like the mystery here. Given the mentioning of guards, I would guess that this man is important or maybe royalty.

    2. I like how we're immediately on the move, Emily. Seems like it will fit your story very well.

    3. Intriguing opening scene. Love that the action starts right in the first few lines!

    4. Thank you all. :)

  7. I'm working on two stories right now, but I'm not too happy with the beginning of one. The one I'll post here, though, I love. It took me forever to get right, mostly because I have so much trouble writing my beginnings.

    "There are days I wish In-Over-His-Head-Arlin would go jump off a cliff. This is definitely one of those days.
    I have no idea what he was thinking, telling Brayden and me to corral a fire breathing dragon to the Asolin River, even if it was just a quarter mile trek. Still, I can’t exactly blame the guy fairly, no matter how much I would like to. I mean, he is head of the Rangers, and he’s had to deal with Walter for five hundred years.
    That can really put strain on a guy, make him not think straight."

    This story has a switching POV with five characters, but I think this one, Garan, opens it the best. I know people don't always like more than one POV, but I really feel that it adds to my story, mostly because it's going to be an epic fantasy and there's lots of things happening in lots of different places.
    Comments would be appreciated.

    1. I love this beginning. It's funny and I would enjoy spending more time with the character through the rest of the story. :)

    2. I think if you're very intentional with how you use your different POV characters (using them to show the story from different angles rather than repeating yourself, etc.) then it can work really well. This opening raises a lot of good questions and has some nice humor in it. I like it!

    3. Love your opening! And as for the multiple POVs, I've found that I like it in some cases but not in others. It's definitely a very effective way to tell a complicated fantasy. Personally, I've struggled with it in the past, but my characters lacked personality back then, which probably contributed to that . . . As long as you can keep the different POVs sounding distinct, it should absolutely work.

    4. I love the humor, here. Good job!

  8. This is the opening line for my current WIP, "Order's Key". I've rewritten it a few times, but I'm not entirely sure about it.

    "Their minds and bodies belonged to the ORDER. Fortunately for Carina, this didn’t extend to possessions - or what the ORDER didn’t know.
    She fingered the small coins she'd "relocated", their insubstantial weight somehow reassuring. It wasn't quite enough of a distraction. In fairness, the man making the sign against evil at her wasn’t being particularly quiet."

    1. Ooh, I'm curious. What secrets does Carina have? I get the idea she's resentful of "the order" and is about to do something important. I like it. :)

    2. Thanks Amanda!

  9. I'm about to start a major rewrite of my book Transform, and don't yet have an opening, but this is the one for the old version. I can't use most of this anymore because it doesn't really apply to the new version of the story, but I might keep the general tone when I write a new opening paragraph. It definitely manages to set the tone for the story, though I'll probably try to work April's personality into the new opening a little more; her defiant nature, and constant sarcasm, don't come across here (though there was some of that in the early pages.)

    I’m not supposed to be a shapeshifter.
    I shouldn’t even be alive.
    Most shifters are born with magic in their blood. They know who they are . . . what they are. And for thousands of years, no one questioned the fact that magic came only from magical ancestors.
    Until me.

    This one's from Nyx, a story I did last NaNo. Most of the book is pretty much terrible, but I think I did a fair job on the opening.

    Something was calling me towards the town.
    I had no idea why, but I knew—just knew—that I had to go there. And after a year wandering Hemera, battling monsters and magic, I’d learned to trust my instincts. It was the only way to stay alive.

    1. Ooo, love the original opening for Transform! Definitely makes me want to read more :). And the opening lines for Nyx are also very intriguing. ~Savannah

  10. Wow. I guess I never really thought about how much the beginning of a book affects the rest. I tend to just go with the flow, but after reading this, I realize that I don't want to read a book if it doesn't have a good opening, so I think I'm going to need to work on that. Right now, the opening of my WIP is:

    "Prince Kadryn surveyed the carnage of the battlefield. Nothing could prepare him for the gruesome scene though it was a familiar sight. More men than he dared to count lay in the bloodstained grass, either dead or soon to be.
    Turning from the field brought no relief. The images were seared into his mind. He made his way back to his tent, weaving between the campfires, tents, and bedrolls of his men and calling out greetings as he went. The men knew the danger they faced, yet they continued to fight anyway, either a testament to their loyalty to the crown or because they refused to allow the Ogres to win. Whatever the reason, though, Kadryn was thankful."

  11. I haven't actually thought too much about using tone and focus before. Thank you!

    Let's see...openings are hard for me, because sometimes I think they come off and sounding too contrived. But here's one or two I particularly like.

    Chords That Bind:
    The music floats through my dreams again.

    It flows through the images, twining around them and back into the darkness. It whispers the words I hate most, “Come to me.” I hate them because they are alluring and it takes everything in me to resist their constant pull.

    On and on, the music sways, dancing softly through my head. Calling to me. Inviting me to join it so we can become one. But tonight, something is different. When I refuse its call, the music does not fade. The tempo picks up. Drums thud and cymbals crash, a harsh brass instrument plays the melody--if it could be called that.

    What is going on? Why can’t I escape this time?

    My dream self reaches out, grasping for something, anything solid. But the only thing that fills my hand is the fine mist in the air.

    Tone: Mysterious, mixed with confusion and a hint of worry.
    Focus: Music in a dream, and the character who seems to be trying to manipulate it somehow.
    POV: Maddie, the main character.

    The short story I began during the word war, Starweaver:
    Marie was drowning in stars.

    Eyes pressing shut against the overwhelming light, she twisted around and around, searching for a crack in the glow. Her heart sped along, tripping over itself in haste.

    Although it seemed there couldn’t possibly be room for any more of the stars, they kept falling from the sky. Like a blanket of light, they cloaked Marie. When she took a step forward, the light moved forward, too. She couldn’t understand it.

    Desperate, she threw her head back and gazed at the sky. Above, she could see the continuous descent of the stars. What had her mother said about this part? She couldn’t make herself think in the midst of this mess. She shut her eyes completely and pressed her hands over them. Think, Marie. What did she teach you about the stars?

    Tone: Something out of the ordinary is happening, but our POV character seems to have expected it. She doesn't seem to be very confident about how things are going, though.
    Focus: Stars, and the strange event that's taking place.
    POV: Marie, the main character.

    Lastly, the prologue I wrote as the beginning of Living Rain's rewrite:
    On May 5, 1003, Gatil watched rain fall on the Euri Desert.
    He stood staring out the window in the large, round room at the top of the Observatory’s main building. A few of his fellows hovered beside him, and each eye was trained on the fat droplets descending upon the sand. The men were so quiet they could hear the sound of the rain hitting the roof and sides of the building around them.
    Without saying a word, every one of them knew and agreed that this day changed everything.
    They’ve done it. It’s over now.

    Tone: Resigned discouragement. Change is in the air, and it seems these guys aren't too happy about it.
    Focus: An out-of-the-ordinary event--rain falling upon a desert.
    POV: This was a new one for me--opening a book with someone other than the main character. However, since so much of the story focuses on the abnormal weather pattern involving the rain, and the event happened before my MC was born, it seemed like beginning there might be better.

    Thoughts, anyone? I'm mostly curious about my use of tone. Did that come through well?

    1. Good gracious, that was long. I apologize.

    2. These are great, Amanda! I especially like the second one. As for tone, I think it comes through pretty well in these, particularly in the beginning of Chords That Bind.

    3. My favorite one was the second one :). The title for it is very interesting, too. ~Savannah

    4. I like Chords that Bind the most, but Starweaver is also intriguing. :)

    5. "Chords that Bind" is the most intriguing to me, but the other ones are interesting as well!

    6. "Chords that Bind" is the most intriguing to me, but the other ones are interesting as well!

    7. I find the first one particularly intriguing. Possibly just because your main character has my name, but also because it's about dreams, and I'm guessing music, and both these things interest me. But they are all quite good.

  12. Here are the opening lines from a manuscript I have been working on.
    "X was going to kill her teacher. It wasn't because English was her worst subject or because Mrs. Rouge was mean, she was one of the best teachers at Hampton High School. It was because her teacher wasn't human."

  13. I can't move. The stars above aren't my constellations. The trees waver over me like blue holograms, seemingly cutting in and out, fuzzing up and then reappearing. I hear a whoosh to my left, a shadow darting from my vision. A whoosh to my right, and the slightest amount of movement. Gone. Red sun creeps up against the horizon, lighting the grass with its candied morning luminescence, making the pale purple buds on the flowers blush against the rays of caramel.
    'You'd never be anybody anyways.'

    1. I really like this one, Emma! ~Savannah

  14. This is from my story Once Upon a Fantasy:

    “Annabelle!” The front door slammed shut behind him.
    She pressed herself against the counter in the kitchen, cowering. She was a coward. Taking a shaky breath, she made it a story, something she'd done for years. ‘Once upon a time in a far away land…”

    The tone: Annabelle is constantly afraid through the whole story and (hopefully) it conveys that. She always states things the way they are. (i.e. She was a coward.)

    The focus: Obviously her fear is a big part of the story, as is her Dad.

    The perspective: This is the main character, so...

    1. Oh, and also the fairy tales play a huge part in this story.

    2. This sounds really interesting.

  15. At the moment, I have two alternate beginnings to a story, but this is the one I like most:

    It was the perfect day for a chase. Atarah ducked beneath the peddler’s cart as it rumbled down the road. On the other side, she called out, lifting her pilfered carrot up to the sunlight.

    “Missing something, mister?” she called out, flipping her black braid behind her back. When the stocky old farmer jumped from the cart, she stuck her tongue out at him and dashed down the alley to her left.

    Shouts rang out behind her, but Atarah only grinned and spurred her bare feet more quickly down the stone streets. No one could catch her today. Today she was invincible.

    TONE: Atarah is a cheery, adventuresome girl, and the entire novel is about her sense of adventure overcoming her fear.
    FOCUS: Um...
    PERSPECTIVE: My MC, Atarah.

  16. Here are the opening lines of my third book ( a novella):

    "I'm in my room. I'm fluffing my pillows. Being all domestic.
    Actually, I'm punching them as hard as I can, imagining they're my brother Elijah's face.
    But, you know, same difference."

    I feel like the tone is successfully portrayed by immediately aquainting you with the main character and her number one vice: anger. You also learn that she has a brother named Elijah, who she is obviously mad at.

    This is a very insightful article. Thanks for the advice! (Always loved the opening lines of P&P, by the way!)

  17. I have two main books. I can't put in one of them, because I'm not really sure where I'd STOP putting it in without doing the whole scene.
    The other one is from my book, 'The Lost Day':

    Lewis Ward awoke that Wednesday morning to someone knocking on his front door: no, *pounding*. *Ugh.* He turned over to his side and covered his head with a pillow. Unfortunately, the age-old advice of *Ignore them long enough, maybe they'll go away* failed to work in this instance. A few sleepless minutes later, he turned over on his back and sighed loudly in exasperation.

    He looked over at his clock. 6:30. *Who would want me up this early on my day off? At least...* He sat up in bed. *At least, I THOUGHT I had Tuesday off.* The pounding renewed in vigor. "All right, all right! I'm coming, I'm coming!" he shouted to whoever it might be.

    TONE: A sense of...urgency, I guess, and mystery: Who is pounding on the door? What does he want? Why does Lewis think it's Tuesday? But the thing is, each chapter in this book has a different tone. So each chapter is sort of its own little world, which all comes together in the last chapter.
    FOCUS: My MC doesn't want to be up. He wants to keep sleeping, like he would normally do on a day off. But whoever's at the door won't give up. He has to answer it.
    PERSPECTIVE: My MC, Lewis Ward, a pretty average man, as far as I've written.

    ~ Gracelyn.