Hello everyone, welcome back! I hope you’re all feeling inspired after the lesson on character, and that you now have at least one character (maybe, hopefully, many more) whom you feel you know well. If you haven’t read last week’s lesson, I’d advise you to start there: each lesson in this three part mini-course will build on the previous lesson, so it’s wise to begin at the beginning, as Dylan Thomas once said.
You may be asking: Why didn’t we start with openings? Well, I think it is important to have a clear (or clear-ish) grasp of character before one attempts the opening. Think of last week’s advice: if you know your characters, and you know their world, then you will know how they will react if something changes that world, and this point is often where our story begins.
Remember, all this advice is intended to be as universal as possible. I’ve tried to make it applicable regardless of what type of story you are trying to tell. Whether it is a novel, a short story, a memoir, or you are simply experimenting and feeling your way, these tips will help you to write an opening that stands out from the pack and grabs the reader’s attention.
Remember also that there are no deadlines or demands in these lessons. It is all here for you to do as much or as little as you want, to approach it in any way that works for you. It is absolutely not my intention to give you another thing to worry about! We’re all in a tough time right now – let’s not make life harder for ourselves.
OK, if you’re feeling ready, let’s get our main character (the protagonist) in mind, and begin to build up the world and the story around them …
The first page
The first page of your story is the most important page you will write (no pressure!). The first line will either draw the reader in or it will make them switch off. As a novelist, I’m aware that just this first line might be all that some people will see: from the sales team to the stock buyers to the bookshop staff to the customer and their friend who heard it was worth picking up. Think of the Amazon ‘Look inside’ function. We all do it!
Assuming the reader is only going to give you a few lines to make an impression, the first page needs to be your manifesto: you are setting out your stall, you are giving them the world and themes of the story in a nutshell.
A good first page should
- Introduce one or more characters
- Establish when and where the action is happening
- Set the voice and tone of the story
- Set up the beginnings of a situation which is striking and/or intriguing and/or funny and/or scary – and which brings about conflict for your character – and hence, story
Here’s a great, and very famous, opening from Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, which achieves all of the above with remarkable efficiency.
‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd.’
We can see our main character, we know his temperament; we can picture the holidaying seaside crowd, and the deadly threat beneath the surface. This style of opening is called in media res (meaning ‘in the middle of things’). We are dropping the reader right into the thick of the action.
Tips for beginnings
- Killer first sentences are wonderful, but make sure they work with your material. It’s more important to intrigue than to impress.
- Simple signposting gives the reader a broad time and a place: e.g., ‘London – 1900’ as a header will do a lot of work.
- Use dialogue early. Dialogue is your friend. It instantly gets the readers into the scene, with the characters, rather than keeping them at arm’s length.
- If you’re writing a novel or memoir, and it feels like your story doesn’t get going for the first few pages, cut those first few pages. Likewise, with the first few paragraphs of a short story – move straight into the story. You don’t have to show characters on their way to and from places – you can jump right into a scene. When you’ve written the bit that moves your story forward, end the scene – we don’t need the goodbyes, the slam of the door, etc.
The opening as a whole
Once you have caught the reader’s attention, you need to keep it. Again, it is important to think about this in terms of setting up your stall, or establishing a contract with the reader. You are saying: this is who and what my story is about (the reader wants to know as soon as possible who they should invest in and follow). You are saying: this is style in which I’m going to tell this story (if it’s a thriller – scare us early; are there ghosts? – don’t introduce them on page 300.)
Perhaps you have a key question that you want the reader to be asking of themselves: Will X find love? Will Y overcome their hardships and fulfil their dreams? It doesn’t have to be a big universal question. It could be a smaller question: Will Z ever speak to that strange neighbour and find out what their deal is?
We should have established our main character, and what their life or their immediate situation looks like. Now we have to deepen the conflict and complexity and difficulty of this picture. We have to raise the stakes, and we have to give the reader a better grasp on the big picture. Who is out to kill Hale? Why is he here in Brighton, sticking out like a sore thumb?
Above all, make the reader care about what’s going on. The best way to do this, as we discussed last week, is to get them to empathise with the character or characters in front of them.
The inciting incident
It’s not always necessary to use death and murder to grab attention. Story isn’t just about people doing action-packed and explosive things. A partner’s hand brushed away, an eyebrow raised – these can be dramatic and intriguing too… Whatever it is, by the end of your opening, something should have happened: an inciting incident, which will spur your characters into action and set your story in motion. Something happens to the main character and they make a conscious decision to do something about it. This is the point when the story truly begins: when the balance of the character’s universe is upset and they respond.
Make us care about these characters, and make things happen to them.
Things to avoid
As always there is an extensive list of don’ts. There are exceptions to any rule, of course, but these are still good rules of thumb:
- Avoid excessive ‘throat-clearing’ and exposition (The reader doesn’t need lots of information about characters and place before you get your story going!)
- Avoid vagueness (Sometimes writers are so keen to make things mysterious, and to not give the game away, that they write very oblique openings that could be about anything at all.)
- Avoid flashbacks (Make sure we’ve got enough forward momentum right at the start.)
- Avoid complex facts (We don’t need to know lots of character names all at once, or the GDP of the country where the story takes place.)
- Avoid emotional scenes (Any scene of passion – love, arguments, and so forth – is a waste of fire at the beginning. The reader has not had a chance to get emotionally involved with the characters.)
- Avoid cliché (Don’t open your story with someone waking up in the morning, stumbling around with a hangover, ‘padding’ to the bathroom etc.)
- Avoid purple prose (Writers have a tendency to overwrite their beginnings, filling them with wild similes and long words, or lengthy descriptions about hills and sunsets – put a person in that landscape and make something happen!)
Getting you 'nose' right
There are different schools of thought on how best to go about this. Some writers write the whole book and then go over from the start. Others don’t leave the first page until they’ve got it right. Either way, it is worth rewriting this opening again and again until you get it right. In journalism they call this ‘the nose’ of a story. If your first paragraph isn’t right, your nose is crooked, you’re setting off askew right from the start.
Personally, I’ll often write dozens of different opening paragraphs and whittle them down. I am trying to see which one will allow me to flow on into the next paragraph and the next.
Try every angle. Read it aloud. Print it out and read it on paper.
This exercise aims to give you an opening angle, a way in, a good strong ‘nose’. Below is a list of prompts to get your story up and running based on the tips in this lesson. Some of these prompts may work better for fiction, some may work better for memoir – choose one you feel works for you and your story. Or try a bunch of them and see which one you prefer. Since we’re building from our main character up, they are all framed around that person.
- Your protagonist receives a piece of bad news
- Describe a strong visual image involving your protagonist (give us something strange, striking, but at the same time indicative of the character and their situation, e.g. your character could be teetering on the edge of a cliff, or eating a banana with a teaspoon). Develop this image into a scene, bringing in action and dialogue and/or interior monologue.
- Describe a strong action that happens to, or is committed by, your protagonist
- Describe the day everything changes for your protagonist. (Drop us into the middle of the action, in media res.)
- Describe a key characteristic of your protagonist (or a character related to them): e.g. ‘Ever since Jane was little, she had been terrified of closed doors.’
- Describe the world of your protagonist. (This is a sort of ‘Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there lived …’ sort of beginning, without you having to use those exact words or throw yourself into full fairytale mode!)
You don’t have to write a lot. About 500-700 words should be ample. Though of course, if it’s working and flowing, please keep building on it!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson. See you next time, when we’ll be wrapping up this mini-course with a look at scenes: how to get the most out of them, and the importance of structuring our stories around them. This, I hope, will stand you in good stead for taking your writing forward.
Continue this mini-course
Lesson 3 – Scenes
The final lesson of this mini-course is all about using scenes to convey the action and events in your story.