The Right Opening
By Joanne Guidoccio
Have you ever experienced the tyranny of the blank page?
If you’re nodding in agreement, you are in good company. In fact, I believe every writer—from beginner to published—has experienced those feelings of doubt and apprehension, especially at the start of a new manuscript. That’s when gremlin thoughts are most powerful.
In this post, I will offer several suggestions on how to squash those gremlins and start writing the first page of your next manuscript.
First, I will dispel three popular rules:
Rule #1–Start with a bang
Some writers believe the first page needs drama: a passionate argument between two people or a man running out of a burning house. One problem: the reader is not yet invested in the characters. The two people arguing could be murderers, and the man running out of the burning house could be a burglar.
The reader needs to know more about the characters and their motivations before the drama occurs.
Rule #2—Start at the beginning
You can use a prologue to cut forward to later events or recall much earlier events. A three- to five-page prologue that introduces the crime or dead body can whet the reader’s appetite for more details.
This works well with mysteries and thrillers.
Rule #3—Never start with dialogue
Used effectively, dialogue can establish the writer’s or protagonist’s voice. This will quickly draw the reader into the writer’s world.
So, what should the “right opening” accomplish?
Very simply, the first sentence needs to draw the reader’s attention to the next sentence and the rest of the first paragraph. And so on. That first sentence does not have to be loud or flashy…only intriguing.
Five “Intriguing” Examples:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell.
“They shoot the white girl first.” Paradise by Toni Morrison
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
If you’re struggling with “intriguing,” start with a simple sentence, and use the rest of the paragraph to follow up with details.
Five examples of the “Simple” Approach:
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf“It was love at first sight.” Catch-22 by Joseph Heller“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.“Nothing happens the way you plan it.” The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Hard-to-read and grammatically incorrect sentences can turn off readers, agents, and publishers. But sometimes they work! (English majors and editors–start cringing!)
Two examples of the “Breaking the Rules and Getting Away with It” approach:
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” The Color Purple by Alice Walker“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
- Think of opening lines and paragraphs as introductions to new people. You probably wouldn’t be interested in getting to know a person who immediately launches into a monologue about her divorce, her latest car accident, or upcoming surgery. Instead, you want to learn just enough about the person so that you can have a pleasant conversation.
- Gently lead the reader into the rest of the paragraph and the next page. The reader doesn’t have to fall in love with that first sentence, but she needs to be curious enough to keep reading.
- Leave the reader with unanswered questions. She should be asking the question “Why” as she reads that first chapter. Why did those characters fall in love? Why did that murder happen?
- Reread your favorite novels and critically analyze the opening sentences and paragraphs. Ask yourself what intrigued you as a reader and then apply the same approach to your own writing.
- Keep in mind that the first chapter of a novel is the most heavily revised section of the book. You don’t have to get it right the first time.
In 2008, Joanne Guidoccio retired from a 31-year teaching career and launched a second act that tapped into her creative side. Slowly, a writing practice emerged. Her articles and book reviews were published in newspapers, magazines, and online. When she tried her hand at fiction, she made reinvention a recurring theme in her novels and short stories. A member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America, Joanne writes cozy mysteries, paranormal romance, and inspirational literature from her home base of Guelph, Ontario.
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