Friday, July 16, 2010

Strong Story Openings

I should be on the road to my family reunion, down in sunny CA, but our car decided it would rather not make the trip. "It's such a hot day," it whined (and I mean literally, it whined). "Are those mountains up ahead? You want me to cross them? Um... no."

Several hours and two tow trucks later, I find I have time for another blog post this week, and I do have some neat writerly sorts of things to share. First is a post from the Compuserve Books & Writers Community, lifted from the Research & Craft folder thread discussion called The First Five (pages, that is, and what makes an editor or agent sit up and take notice of them).

The following was posted by Barbara Rogan, writer, editor, former agent, current writing instructor. I believe it's an excellent distillation of what makes for a strong opening page for any novel, and I share it with her permission.

As an editor and teacher, and formerly as an agent, I've read more openings to novels than I could begin to count. There's actually an offer on my website similar to what you're doing here, a chance to submit the opening of a novel and get detailed feedback, so they keep on rolling in. I agree with others here who've said that the first impression is voice. It's just like music. If Yo Yo Ma plays a few notes on a cello, and a high-school music student played the same few notes, any musician would recognize the difference instantly.  So too any professional agent or editor---it doesn't take five pages.

Strong openings create solid settings from the start. If readers can't see that setting clearly, if they don't fully believe in it,  nothing that happens there will matter much.

Writers who excite me have a note of authority in their voices, or maybe it's confidence. It says, "This is my story and by God I'm gonna tell it." There's a comfort level for readers in that note of authority. We feel better being driven by people who show from the moment they take the wheel that they really do know how to drive. Strong writers don't tiptoe into their stories; they dive head first.

That doesn't mean starting with a climactic scene, or plunging readers straight into intense action. As you point out, readers will feel more for the character's travails if they know the characters when the troubles begin. That doesn't mean, as some here seem to fear, writing a bunch of boring background stuff before getting to the fun stuff. Rather, it's a matter of writing an opening scene dense with characterization, setting, and context (not backstory) that gives us not only a sense of who the character is but a reason to care about the character. That's hardly a given; it has to be earned, and earned quickly, or the reader will feel less than compelled to continue.

You can find Barbara at her website, or at her Next Level Workshop (writing course) site:

And while on the subject of strong writing, I also wanted to share a writing craft book I'm currently reading. It's The Scene Book, A Primer for the Fiction Writer, by Sandra Scofield. I'm halfway through this little book and thus far have made good use of my highlighter. Always a mark of a good craft book, that I'm thinking ahead to the need to find certain passages again at a later date.

In this book you'll learn about the pulse of a scene, and how that pulse carries action and emotion. The focal point, or where the scene converges and turns. How a strong central event can be broken down into beats. Scene openings, and Big Scenes, those that contain many characters. But wait, there's more! Lots more really. I've read a lot of craft books, even quite a few that focus primarily on scene structure. This is a good one.


  1. Lori, I'm about half way through The Scene Book too, and l reckon I've highlighted something on just about every page! Great little book.

    And thanks for posting Barbara's sound advice; we are so very lucky to have her input on the Forum.

  2. Rachel,

    I totally agree. Don't know where I'd be in this writing journey without a decade or more of gleaning the wisdom of folks like Barbara, Diana, Jo....

  3. Anonymous12:48 AM

    wow. This is awesome and I so want that book! You could say I'm a beginner writer and I write fantasy novels, and I think a thing I need to work on is the beginning of a story.
    Great post!

  4. Hi Ashley. I hope you find this book helpful. Another great writing craft book is Donald Maass' WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

    Sometimes it's hard to know where to start a story until you have written most, if not all, of the first draft. So don't let it hang you up too much. Jump in and start writing if you aren't sure. Some writers need to write for a bit to get to know their characters, and the "true" opening of the story will reveal itself in time. No writing is ever wasted, even if it doesn't make it into the final version of the novel.