I've been thinking about this recently though. Okay, I think about it every time I sit down to write, or whenever I read a book, or when I consider any of our First Five Pages Workshop entries.
Here are my thoughts for today:
- Great is subjective and varies based on genre and taste. A quiet story shouldn't open with high-action, and a thriller probably shouldn't open with a moment of quiet reflection or a long lead-in about the weather. Gimmicks or high-impact, dramatic sentences may get the attention of some readers, but they are just as likely to turn some readers off. The most important criteria for an opening is that it needs to work for that particular book. The tone and the mood and the pace all have to be appropriate.
- Great opening doesn't necessarily mean great for the book overall. A great opening is a set-up, the first step in a series of stepping-stones that leads the reader through the book. The stones have to be set up in the right sequence, and in the right placement, so that the reader can't wander off the path or give up altogether. Writers who mislead the reader by creating a great first scene that has little to do with the main story question will inevitably lose the reader, or at least the reader's enthusiasm. Great openings may get the book read, but unless we, as writers, follow through on the promise of the opening, we are actually doing ourselves, and our readers, a disservice.
- Great openings set-up the type of book and the main story question. Yes, we want to hook the reader. But even more than that, we want to set the reader up with an overview of what they will be getting when they buy the book. What is the book about? Is it going to be dark? Light? Funny? Fast-paced? Slow-paced? Mainly about character? Mainly about plot? Is it paranormal? Is it fantasy? Is it contemporary? Where is it set? What's the POINT of the book? What's the problem the main character faces and why? All that is in the opening, at least hints of it should be.
- A great opening will usually start with the main character. In fact, with few exceptions, great books usually have the main character be the first thing that moves on the page, or at least offer the main character's reactions to the first thing that moves on the page.
- Great openings showcase a unique perspective. What makes this book different from any other? What about the world, the people, the story, hasn't been done before? There's bound to be something. None of us start off writing the exact same story as someone else. So how do we get the unique up front and center? That, perhaps, is our most important tasks as writers.
Voice is one of those terms that is thrown around the literary world. We writers use it, agents use it, editors use it. But readers don't read an opening and think, Wow, I love the voice here. Hopefully, they think, Hey, I want to read more of this. And hopefully, when they are done with the book, they also think, Man, I want to read more from this writer.
If you've seen the television show The Voice, you know the starting premise. The judges don't see the people auditioning until after they decide whether or not they want to work with that singer. Like everyone who listens to the song, they have to decide based on the voice whether they want to hear more, whether they want to invest their time with that person, whether that singer is going to have something unique to offer.
Our Mission, Should We Choose to Accept It
Our job when we craft an opening to a manuscript is to convince the reader we have something unique and interesting to share. We must show the reader a hint of our wares, lure them onto a stepping stone, and invite them to move on with us as we take them on a journey. This applies equally to the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, and through every sentence, paragraph, and page thereafter. As writers, we lead through temptation, and we hope we do it well enough that our readers want to follow.
A Few of My Recent Favorite Openings
I WAKE WITH his name in my mouth.
Before I open my eyes, I watch him crumple to the pavement again. Dead.
Tobias crouches in front of me, his hand on my left shoulder. The train car bumps over the rails, and Marcus, Peter, and Caleb stand by the doorway. I take a deep breath and hold it in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure that is building in my chest.
Veronica Roth, Insurgent
Prague, early May. The sky weighed gray over fairy-tale rooftops, and all the world was watching. Satellites had even been tasked to surveil the Charles Bridge, in case the . . . visitors . . . returned. Strange things had happened in this city before, but not this strange. At least, not since video tape existed to prove it. Or to milk it.
Laini Taylor, Days of Blood and Starlight
The young girl cringed when they buckled the eyeless leather mask around the upper half of her face and blinded her. It felt grotesque and unnecessary, but she didn't object. It was the procedure. She knew that. One of the other vessels had described it to her at lunch a month before.
Lois Lowry, Son
The air at the upermost reaches of Haven is hot and thick with the stench of rat droppings. Small price to pay for free food. Normal girls run screaming when this close to rats, but I can't afford luxuries like fear.
Deviants (The Dust Chronicles) Maureen McGowan
"The loss of oxygen, however temporary, however minimal in the grand scheme of things, is taking its toll." Dr. Chen spoke in low tones, but she knew I was listening.
"What was the length of this episode?" Dad asked. Present-day Dad. Distant Dad. Emotionless Dad.
I turned toward the window then and tuned them out. This episode had been long. The loop had been long, and I knew it.
Flutter, Gina Linko
What do these five openings tell you about the books? Do they speak to you? Do they make you want to read?