I have been wondered a long time how to write a strong opening. I was on the mission to find the perfect line, to begin with for my story.
The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.“ This is the opening sentence in „The Gunslinger“, the first book in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower“ series. I may be wrong about it, but I think it is nearly perfect. It creates a sense of our antagonist, protagonist and the setting. It let us ask questions. Who is the man in black and the gunslinger, what is the conflict about? All that in one simple line, which drags us immediately into the Story.
I have been wondered a long time how to write a strong opening. I was on the mission to find the perfect line, to begin with for my story. It was so bad, I barely came to writing the story. I have done a ton of reading and a lot of research. Finally, I came to conclusion, the strong opening is not just about the first line, even though there are a bunch of those.
One I like came also from Stephen King.
“Everybody thought the man and the boys were father and son.“ Salem´s Lot
But why this line works for me and what about the whole opening. Well, to answer the first question, it creates a hook. As soon as I read this sentence, I had some questions. Who is the man and why he has that boy on his side? Where are his parents and why no-one knows about it? So many questions!
The second question is probably a little bit harder to answer. In his book, author Syd Field writes, „Everything is related in a screenplay, so it becomes essential to introduce your story components from the beginning. You’ve got ten pages to grab or hook your reader, so you´ve got to set up your story.“.
Salem´s Lot, waste here no time to introduce us to the main character. In the first sentence we learn, about him and about some trades of his character.
„Everybody thought…“, here we learn how the other peoples reacting to and see our protagonist, „the man and the boy were father and son.“.
They see him as the father of the boy, what means in extent, he cares about the boy. We also learn, that he is not the father of the boy at all and hide some secret. All those information, we get in the first line, which also raises some question how I mentioned earlier.
There is a lot of pressure in writing the first line and the first few pages. Why? It is the first what the agent, editor or reader would read. If he would be not hooked by it, he probably throws your manuscript or book away and took another.
So how are you gonna approach the beginning of your story? Let’s start with something you shouldn’t do. Here are three examples.
Number One: Painful long exposition of the backstory.
Yes, you need, give away some information, but you don’t have a shout out on your reader a ton of exposition. I know you think you got to tell them all those things. They may have not understood what’s going on. They would. Don’t treat them like they would not be able to put two and two together.
The problem with the backstory also includes the problem with „show, don’t tell!“, because the authors tend to dump as many expositions as possible in a few lines.
You can add some deep and backstory later in your book if necessary, through dialog or reactions. Give the reader what he needs to know. Not the boring stuff from second grade.
Number Two: Stream of Thoughts
Don´t let your character on the beginning, ponder about the meaning of life for three pages. I know, I know, there are some examples where it works, and you may though you writing the next big existential piece of the decade. But, you are probably not. At least not, if you take it for too long with it. Show, don’t tell! By those mind-streams, you would tell a lot and you don´t engage with your reader as you wished. Put one or two lines, is absolutely alright, even a paragraph, but please don´t get much further with it. Really. Don´t do it!
Number three: Avoid the clichés!
Yes, I wrote this article here on medium, about why the tropes and clichés are not bad and actually work, but you want to be careful with this.
You want not, to be put in the box after your first page and you want not, to come cheep around. Or, I am wrong about it? No. So let the stuff about whether go!
So where you should start?
The best way to start is by your inciting accident. But you can do a little prologue, to it. What you should remember are the big four.
One: The Questions
You have to bring the reader to ask questions. Who is the guy? Why he is here and what’s going on. In our first example of the first sentence, we have already talked about it. This the most effective way to create a hook.
„Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, we’re proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.“ J.K. Rowling — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Why is so important to know that the Dursley family was perfectly normal and what a kind of strange things could be the people involved in? The reader gets a sattle hint of something mysterious happening soon and ask what.
You get the idea.
Two: The Character
Introduce your character in the way the reader connect to him. You want to get the reader some information, but not all. Just the things necessary to understand, where he is in his life and what is his desire, maybe even a hint of the obstacle.
„The boy’s name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church. The roof had fallen in long ago, and an enormous sycamore had grown on the spot where the sacristy had once stood. …“ Paulo Coelho — The Alchemist
The very first page of Alchemist, we spent with learn about Santiago. What he is up to and his desire.
Three: The Imagery
Here you can showcase your writing style. In building up the perfect tone for your story, you choose your own way to describe the world and characters. But there is a but in this. You have to choose the imager wisely. You have to stick to it. This is the promise, you give your reader. The characters may go through some changes in the story. I mean, that´s the purpose of character arc. Some questions will be answered and some would rise, but your imagery will provide to the reader a red line. So you better stay consistent.
There are plenty of examples for magnificent world building and tone setting across the literature, but I think the most memorable are those in fantasy and sci-fi, just because of the nature of those genres.
I could here include the beginning of The Hobbit or The Neuromancer. But I think by now you get the Idea.
Four: The Theme
„It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.“ Charles Dickens — A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens clearly set up the theme of duality in the story, in this first paragraph. I think this example tell you exactly what I mean. It’s good to give your reader a sense of that whats the story about. It is not necessary, but it helps the reader to dive a little bit into the philosophy of your piece. This is more important in non-fictional writing but has some use also in genre-novels.
Those are the ingredients of a good opening and it is on you how you gonna mix them. You should have in mind, that the opening of your story is probably the most important part of your story. It is here where you engage with your reader for the first time and it is here where you give him a promise, about what your story gonna be.
A little side-note:
I mentioned earlier in this article, that I was struggling with openings and I have to admit I do it even now. But there is a little trick to it. Don’t put that much effort to it on the beginning of your writing. Don’t worry about it. Write it down and come back later. You can do a massive overhaul by editing. Just make sure before you put it out, that it is tied up.
In meanwhile keep writing.