Great Openings

crankshaft in the grand canyonIt’s an oft-discussed problem of writer’s workshops that first chapters get lots of attention to detail and craft, and then fall off like a continental shelf at the edge of a deep ocean. First sentences are even more the focus of early workshop experiences. While I try to pay at least as much attention to the last third of my work as the first third, I do think an opening can sink or swim a book in all kinds of ways—agents who’ve requested the manuscript will stop reading, readers thumbing through books in stores will put it back down and move to the next novel, and readers will get frustrated or have a hard time pressing on into chapter 2. In my aim to write a fantastic opening, I look to avoid certain things:

  • Don’t open with a statement from a character—Nobody knows who is speaking, where the statement is happening, when it’s happening, etc. If the reader is like me, she or he will feel the need to go back and read the line again after getting through some of the exposition, and by that point I’m annoyed.
  • Don’t start too far ahead of the action—There’s a pretty door in the floor, and darn if it doesn’t look really inviting. It’s a door that whispers to writers: you need to let the readers see the protagonist before you have something happen to them. This is a TRAP. It leads to the back story/overtelling hell, from which many stories never return. Readers don’t need to see characters in their daily routines—like brushing their teeth—to feel attached to them. I know the opening credit sequence in Dexter is cute.
  • Don’t start right in the middle of the action—I swear this is not a contradiction with my earlier point. There is a sweet spot between giving us 7–10 pages of morning routine and having the first sentence explain that a bomb has just exploded next to the protagonist. Having a main character who is in shock, just coming out of a coma, or holding the immediately deceased hand of a loved one as the start of a piece is likely to generate instant alienation for many readers. Only someone like Octavia Butler can write this kind of opening and make it work.

So, what do I look to do at the very start of a story? My goals are to show conflict in context, laying out the characters, setting, and mood. One can’t do a whole lot in one sentence or one paragraph, after all, but we don’t have to start out on the wrong foot, either.

Now it’s time for a few examples of beginnings I think work well. Your mileage may vary, of course.

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. —Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

Well, where did they go? Why should they have stayed? We don’t know the conflict, but we’ve got some elements, a good dose of tone, and foreshadowing, right in the first sentence.

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. —Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

I know, that’s two sentences, but the first one is so short it’s not an impediment to reading on to the second, and then we get a great deal of information that again, hints at all kinds of people, a chaotic family, and what relationships we’re going to see as we keep reading.

It was 1947 when Mutt and I was married. —Gayl Jones, Corregidora

Time, tone, dialect, two main characters, one with a specific kind of name. Will it have more meaning as we read? Are we going to read about post-war people, or is this just exposition before we head into a later part of their lives? All of this in the space of nine words.

First sentences, as first chapters, need to motivate and provide enough curiosity that readers have no choice but to press on and find out what happens next, as the writer lets more clues flutter to the ground for us to pick up and examine and understand. Great openings give us confidence that we’re in for a good ride.

Great endings, well, those come later.

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