What I think about openings

Toby Frost

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There are many ways of starting a book. A really good writer could probably start a novel anywhere, and with anything, and the force of their prose would carry the reader on. But, as with all writing advice, the safest thing to do is to maximise the possibility that the reader will want to read the novel. It’s not a question of what always works and what can’t work, but of what tends to be the most effective thing to do.

Bold statement*

A lot of books begin with a dramatic statement that calls for further explanation. 1984 starts with a description of the clocks striking thirteen. Farenheit 451 starts with the words “It was a pleasure to burn”. Brighton Rock opens with the line “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”.

All three of these examples share certain traits. They contain only one thing: information about the time when Winston Smith was walking, the fact that it was a pleasure to burn, and Hale’s knowledge. They are written in simple, clear English. They all contain something wrong, something dangerous. Orwell’s clocks strike thirteen: not only do clocks not do this, but thirteen is traditionally an unlucky number. The book starts with a bad omen, promising trouble. In the second example, why is burning pleasurable? Surely burning is destructive, almost vandalism. Or maybe Bradbury is suggesting that to actually burn yourself would be a pleasure? Either way, the concept is perverse and sinister. And of course Hale is going to be murdered. Say no more, squire.

Question

But they all pose questions, too. Why is the clock doing that? Why is burning pleasurable? Who wants to kill Hale, why, and how will he escape? So each statement creates menace, and poses questions to the reader. And the only way to find out the answers is to read on. A milder version can be seen in the opening to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. What is Manderley, and why is it so important to the narrator?

Description

Both Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake and Neuromancer by William Gibson begin with striking descriptions. Peake starts by describing Gormenghast Castle in ominous tones, which compare the stone to a misshapen body. The Tower of Flints is like a misshapen finger, pointing at heaven, while owls “make of it a throat”. Again, there’s something ominous about this, but also a sense that this is a place where interesting things will happen. The reader is encouraged to read about the rest of the castle - to explore it, if you like. As Steerpike, the villain of the novel, says, “This is somewhere”.

Similarly, Gibson describes his world in terms that suit it. The sky over the port was the colour of a TV tuned to a dead channel: this suggests not just a setting where technology is everywhere, but one where it often doesn’t work to everyone’s benefit. Chiba City, the place in question, is full of weird, dangerous losers – people tuned to dead channels. The description suits a world that owes a lot to film noir. Gibson takes this even further in the sequel, Count Zero, which begins with a chunk of jargon-filled prose about a bomb in an Indian street market. I’ve read that book three times, and I’m still not certain what Gibson meant – but I’ve got a good and powerful mental image, which is all that’s needed for the paragraph to work.

Action

This is simply a way of throwing the reader straight into the story by starting it with dramatic physical events. The Blade Itself begins with a literal cliffhanger (this, incidentally, hints at the book’s clever use of fantasy stereotypes and stock plots). The adventure novel Rogue Male begins with its narrator calmly explaining how he was captured in a forest, tortured and thrown off a cliff, before the story even really begins. One point worth noting here is that characters in this sort of opening often do exciting things before they are fully introduced. Firstly, putting in a full description of the lead character would slow the story down. Secondly, it’s not necessary. Because the viewpoint character is trying to stay alive or do something difficult, they immediately have our sympathy, and our willingness to follow them. We assume that the lead character, the one doing the action, is someone fairly typical to this sort of world, someone roughly sympathetic, and read on to know if they survive. Details can be filled in later.

Where to start?

This seems like an easy question to answer: you start where the story begins, of course. But where does it begin? A lot of stories start with the hero – a commando, private eye or similar “contractor” – being given a mission. But it might be better to start later on. If the hero is told to break into an old house, would it be better to start with him walking up to the door? It’s very hard to say. Ideally, you’re looking for immediacy, making the reader part of the story as soon as possible, but you might feel that the scene where the hero is warned about the old house is very important, in that it gives background and warns about the monsters hiding inside.

Personally, I would say that there has to be a clear, decisive break from the previous events of the story. The hero stops driving and leaves his car. A wizard walks into town. Whatever happens, I think it needs to be a distinct happening. And whatever you do decide to do, don't describe somebody being bored at the start of a book. It's about the only time that the author is guaranteed to make the reader feel the character's predicament.


*Yes, I know, this is a statement in bold text. That's not exactly what I meant.
 

Cli-Fi

John J. Falco
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There are many ways of starting a book. A really good writer could probably start a novel anywhere, and with anything, and the force of their prose would carry the reader on. But, as with all writing advice, the safest thing to do is to maximise the possibility that the reader will want to read the novel. It’s not a question of what always works and what can’t work, but of what tends to be the most effective thing to do.

Bold statement*

A lot of books begin with a dramatic statement that calls for further explanation. 1984 starts with a description of the clocks striking thirteen. Farenheit 451 starts with the words “It was a pleasure to burn”. Brighton Rock opens with the line “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”.

All three of these examples share certain traits. They contain only one thing: information about the time when Winston Smith was walking, the fact that it was a pleasure to burn, and Hale’s knowledge. They are written in simple, clear English. They all contain something wrong, something dangerous. Orwell’s clocks strike thirteen: not only do clocks not do this, but thirteen is traditionally an unlucky number. The book starts with a bad omen, promising trouble. In the second example, why is burning pleasurable? Surely burning is destructive, almost vandalism. Or maybe Bradbury is suggesting that to actually burn yourself would be a pleasure? Either way, the concept is perverse and sinister. And of course Hale is going to be murdered. Say no more, squire.

Question

But they all pose questions, too. Why is the clock doing that? Why is burning pleasurable? Who wants to kill Hale, why, and how will he escape? So each statement creates menace, and poses questions to the reader. And the only way to find out the answers is to read on. A milder version can be seen in the opening to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. What is Manderley, and why is it so important to the narrator?

Description

Both Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake and Neuromancer by William Gibson begin with striking descriptions. Peake starts by describing Gormenghast Castle in ominous tones, which compare the stone to a misshapen body. The Tower of Flints is like a misshapen finger, pointing at heaven, while owls “make of it a throat”. Again, there’s something ominous about this, but also a sense that this is a place where interesting things will happen. The reader is encouraged to read about the rest of the castle - to explore it, if you like. As Steerpike, the villain of the novel, says, “This is somewhere”.

Similarly, Gibson describes his world in terms that suit it. The sky over the port was the colour of a TV tuned to a dead channel: this suggests not just a setting where technology is everywhere, but one where it often doesn’t work to everyone’s benefit. Chiba City, the place in question, is full of weird, dangerous losers – people tuned to dead channels. The description suits a world that owes a lot to film noir. Gibson takes this even further in the sequel, Count Zero, which begins with a chunk of jargon-filled prose about a bomb in an Indian street market. I’ve read that book three times, and I’m still not certain what Gibson meant – but I’ve got a good and powerful mental image, which is all that’s needed for the paragraph to work.

Action

This is simply a way of throwing the reader straight into the story by starting it with dramatic physical events. The Blade Itself begins with a literal cliffhanger (this, incidentally, hints at the book’s clever use of fantasy stereotypes and stock plots). The adventure novel Rogue Male begins with its narrator calmly explaining how he was captured in a forest, tortured and thrown off a cliff, before the story even really begins. One point worth noting here is that characters in this sort of opening often do exciting things before they are fully introduced. Firstly, putting in a full description of the lead character would slow the story down. Secondly, it’s not necessary. Because the viewpoint character is trying to stay alive or do something difficult, they immediately have our sympathy, and our willingness to follow them. We assume that the lead character, the one doing the action, is someone fairly typical to this sort of world, someone roughly sympathetic, and read on to know if they survive. Details can be filled in later.

Where to start?

This seems like an easy question to answer: you start where the story begins, of course. But where does it begin? A lot of stories start with the hero – a commando, private eye or similar “contractor” – being given a mission. But it might be better to start later on. If the hero is told to break into an old house, would it be better to start with him walking up to the door? It’s very hard to say. Ideally, you’re looking for immediacy, making the reader part of the story as soon as possible, but you might feel that the scene where the hero is warned about the old house is very important, in that it gives background and warns about the monsters hiding inside.

Personally, I would say that there has to be a clear, decisive break from the previous events of the story. The hero stops driving and leaves his car. A wizard walks into town. Whatever happens, I think it needs to be a distinct happening. And whatever you do decide to do, don't describe somebody being bored at the start of a book. It's about the only time that the author is guaranteed to make the reader feel the character's predicament.


*Yes, I know, this is a statement in bold text. That's not exactly what I meant.
Very interesting points. How do you feel about openings with a prisoner, captured hero, or inside a prison? Like the authors you stated above, I try to use a first sentence that basically sums up what the entire book is going to be about. Then I go in for the action. I try really hard to grab the reader in the first few pages, usually with action or an interesting theme. Some books don't do this for me, and often I wonder how the more popular ones ever get published in the first place. Because Agents/Publishers usually only see the first few pages before making a decision. I highly believe that the grab factor or a hook is not the most important thing. I usually read older books from the 50s so maybe it worked differently back then. I guess that's just me being picky.
 

Brian G Turner

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Bold statement*
The trouble with these is they can be used for their own sake, even if it's just to follow the writing convention.

One example that comes to mind is Kate Elliot's Cold Magic, the first book in her Spritwalker series:

The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.

Or at least, that's how the dawn chill felt in the bedchamber as I shrugged out from beneath the cozy feather comforter under which my cousin and I slept.
You can almost hear the publisher telling Kate that getting out of bed is a boring start, so why not stick some kind of bold statement at the beginning - even if it's irrelevant.
 

Cli-Fi

John J. Falco
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The trouble with these is they can be used for their own sake, even if it's just to follow the writing convention.

One example that comes to mind is is Kate Elliot's Cold Magic, the first book in her Spritwalker series:



You can almost hear the publisher telling Kate that getting out of bed is a boring start, so why not stick some kind of bold statement at the beginning - even if it's irrelevant.
True I was told never, ever to use a waking up theme for the opening, cause it's overused. Again, I question how that got published, but I do like that first sentence.
 

Brian G Turner

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I do like that first sentence
It is great! But completely irrelevant to the act of getting out of bed.

The third sentence has her step out onto the floor and finds it "brutally cold". Talk about trying to force a sense of excitement.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I picked up Hugh Howey's Wool yesterday for the first time, and the bold statement that someone was going to their death, followed by pages where he didn't actually was quite a turn off for me. :)
 

HareBrain

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I agree, I think after a while you get a nose for a bold statement that's a desperate bid to catch a reader's mayfly attention. I find the assumption that I have a tiny attention span somewhat insulting, even if it's true.
 

Hex

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Yes. I kind of fell off the end of Wool when
he actually did, though. One of those GRRM things -- introduce a character, make him sympathetic and complex and interesting, get the reader invested, and then kill him.
I absolutely hate that.

I struggled a little with the opening of The Blade Itself. It took me two or three goes to read on past the page of stuff happening and me having no idea what was going on. Glad I did, of course. And it puzzles me, because in general I don't have a problem with openings where I have no real idea what's happening. One of the classics is Dogsbody which starts with (the star) Sirius raging at the stellar justice system, and apart from his obvious rage and sense of unfairness, there's not a great deal to explain all the stuff going on.

One of the opening techniques I've started to like, though I hated it for years, was the character talking either straight to the reader or straight to someone else who is supposedly reading the book. Like the start of Chime where she's begging to be executed, and then there's a jump in time to where the story really starts. Quite often, then, you read with a sense of dread.
 

Jo Zebedee

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Cool. That saves me reading on to find out... :)

On Hex's - the character talking to you. That really worked for me in the Time Traveller's Wife. Straight into the two voices, and if you like them then you'll keep going, and if not you probably never will. But I also like Captain Corelli's, where a pea is removed from an ear, because we're with the character right away and just chucked into the world with them. (It's also a good eg where the main character isn't even the first, but doesn't appear until something like a quarter through. Write that as a query...)

Description is a turn-off for me. It's bad enough when I have to read it when already invested. :)

For me, I like beginnings that ask questions. The Ocean at the End of the Lane - whose funeral? Who is the unknown narrator and where on Earth is he off to?
 

Brian G Turner

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I picked up Hugh Howey's Wool yesterday for the first time, and the bold statement that someone was going to their death, followed by pages where he didn't actually was quite a turn off for me. :)
Not many pages, though. :)
 

MWagner

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Personally, I would say that there has to be a clear, decisive break from the previous events of the story. The hero stops driving and leaves his car. A wizard walks into town. Whatever happens, I think it needs to be a distinct happening.
Yes, I think a story begins when something changes the status quo, usually a threat or an opportunity. The trick is how much context do you need to orient the reader and give meaning to the change. Most stories that open with action go back and provide that context after the opening scene. Other stories hold off on the change in order to first establish place and atmosphere. In horror stories, for example, that sense of atmosphere is important.

Fantasy and SF can present their own challenges, depending on how unfamiliar the world is. It's one thing to say "Prince Gareth leaped off his horse and pounded his first on the door to the tower, challenging the sorcerer Mallagigi to present himself." It's another to say "The Archon of Tegil chanted the final incantation before the flame-licked obelisk, and the cry "Bhal-Amoth!" rang from the mouths of the hundred ephors of the City of Shackled Titans."
 

Dan Jones

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And whatever you do decide to do, don't describe somebody being bored at the start of a book. It's about the only time that the author is guaranteed to make the reader feel the character's predicament.
Guilty, m'lud. I did that exact thing in earlier drafts of Jewels, and the critters here were only too happy to sink their pearly whites into it. Good job, too!

Interesting stuff. I think established authors are more likely to be cut some slack with openings because their readers may have certain expectations and are willing to go on that journey with them, even if the opening is perhaps slower. For authors trying to break through, I guess going for a safe(r) bet, such as an action or set piece opening scene, makes sense.
 

Toby Frost

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How do you feel about openings with a prisoner, captured hero, or inside a prison?
My first thought is that today is the day that the prisoner escapes!

More seriously, my instinct is to say that something needs to happen. As MG Wagner says, the status quo changes. I suppose you could change the details of the prison itself to allow that thing to happen. In a very bleak story, it might be that another prisoner dies and the hero tries to get the dead man’s boots. Perhaps he is sent somewhere with a particularly hated guard who then has a heart attack, forcing the hero to decide whether to help this guy. Maybe another prisoner asks him to join an escape committee. By any normal standards they’re not world-changing events, but they would change life in the prison a lot, and hence are important to the lead character. I suppose you could ask why, if they’re not important to the story, things are being described.
 

Zoe Mackay

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It's one thing to say "Prince Gareth leaped off his horse and pounded his first on the door to the tower, challenging the sorcerer Mallagigi to present himself." It's another to say "The Archon of Tegil chanted the final incantation before the flame-licked obelisk, and the cry "Bhal-Amoth!" rang from the mouths of the hundred ephors of the City of Shackled Titans."
I think this is one of my least favourite things - openings that throw fifteen hundred weird words and names at me without any indication which ones are important and I need to remember, and which ones are just there because the author has a quota of unusual consonant combinations to get through and they want an early start.

In the end, it's all about getting the reader to the next paragraph, and almost anything works, provided the pay-off isn't a slightly disappointed "oh." You want the reaction to be "tell me more about this strange castle!" or "what happens next?" or "who was going to die?" And then the second reaction to not be "It's a cardboard model? Oh."
 
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Jo Zebedee

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The thing is the prison cell is only the setting. It's not where the action happens that matters, but what happens. I start my trilogy in a cell, but it's the start of the journey the book takes that matters, not that the character's in a cell. It's not even the mc as it happens, which is a different risk, and it's a prologue, but it is where the crux of the story begins. That's the trick, not to worry about where but what...
 

Boneman

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Interesting thread, some good thoughts that made me think twice about my own openings!

I think the bold statement can work very well if it's not over-egged: The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed... But I'm assuming for all of us, that we don't buy the book for an opening line, but for the opening, however long it intrigues us. Naturally, we've been attracted by the cover, read the blurb on the back, and then gone to the opening, so we have some idea of what to expect and it's great to be drawn in immediately, by whatever means. Personally, I'm drawn in by what's unsaid, and it's that word 'intrigue' for me - a bold statement needs to be intriguing (as shown by Toby's three) as does a question and action, but mostly I'm put off by description. I guess I need to be hooked by character more than place - no matter how intriguing the place may be, in its description, because there's no backstory to description. (Someone will now point out a great opening that starts: 'Where the fountain used to be, a gaping hole stared upwards. Blue, deep blue, almost indigo. The benches were a pile of ashes with twisted nails...etc).

The opening to Dune got me as soon as cast my eyes over it (I was 15 at the time, maybe 14); In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, and old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

It's not a bold statement, but there's a question there, especially in the use of the 'old crone'. And despite the fact I don't like description, the next line is: It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.

Minimal description, leaves the reader to build his own castle in his mind. Perfect.

The action then concentrates on the three people, (the crone, Jessica and Paul) and it did intrigue me enormously by drip-feeding a little history and backstory, so that by page 2, when Paul's reverie fills us in, I knew I'd read the whole thing. I realise I do like character-driven stories more than plot-driven, so naturally I'm attracted those openings that speak of character, I guess...
 
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