Editors, agents and publishers agree that the story's opening acts as the "gatekeeper" to the rest of the novel and any success it might have. In other words, Chapter Two may be brilliantly written but it won't matter, no one gets that far if the opening fails. We all understand that. Coming up with a great opening is the challenge. In this post I aim to offer some constructive advice and ideas on the subject.
Researching this topic leads to finding dozens of classic openings. I'm going to explore these later on. I'm not starting with them because there needs to be a context established. What should an opening actually do?
The answer is the opening should have:
A clear point of view
A compelling voice
Tension of some type
Style, Inciting Incident or Character?
An opening to a story should address at least one of these ingredients: your writing style, your protagonist or the inciting incident. It's unlikely you will manage three in a single paragraph. So your first decision - which of these three options works best? I'd suggest that if your writing style is unusual and distinctive then that might be the way to grab your readers' attention. That said, if your inciting incident leads to an original, exciting premise, start there. The consensus tells us that, the traditional approach is to begin with character. Get your readers hooked on the protagonist.
I'm a fan of book coach and editor, Susan DeFreitas. She points out the same thing as Wendy Parciak (whose question on Mastondon coincided with my research on this topic.) There is a danger that the opening appears contrived. The result is a gimmicky first sentence. Which is why Susan DeFreitas warns against tension being external to the character. She explains that agents, publishers and editors want to see an internal conflict which produces tension that generates a character arc. The rest of the story is about how that conflict will be resolved. Furthermore, this conflict shouldn't be something the protagonist recognises. Lisa Cron makes the same point. She talks about the "misbeliefs" of the character - the failure to recognise the issues that would put this person on the right path to resolution. Three examples that illustrate how this internal conflict can be achieved.
Nagging doubts or misgivings: The protagonist senses something is wrong. It might be about a relationship, a business venture, an exciting quest. The main thing is, they don't know why they think that way. It may be an instinctive warning. Perhaps others are hinting at it. Perhaps a warning source is unreliable. The "misbelief" is unclear, vague and not sufficiently validated. Chances are, this is why the misgivings are ignored and we launch into the story.
Self-generated trouble: The protagonist is their own worst enemy. They sabotage themselves. Here the "misbeliefs" exist in the form of an unwillingness to face the truth or accept responsibility. We've met these people, haven't we? The type who complain about their lives yet the solution is staring them in the face. This protagonist needs care though. They need an arc which renders them sympathetic to be want them to succeed!
The voice of dissent: Other characters are the ones sounding the warning bells. "That man is trouble!" "Please don't marry her, she's not right for you." "They are going to lead you astray!" But, for whatever reason, the advice is ignored and will be proved right at some point in the story.
I've got an example of the first option, the misgivings. Anne Enright’s opening to The Gathering:
I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me—this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.
The misgivings here are two-fold. The protagonist questions whether the events happened. Secondly, that reference to 'crime of the flesh' gives away some of the uncertainty. Our protagonist is deeply confused and that provides the readers' hook. This example uses the classic trope of the unreliable narrator but does so by introducing that idea in the opening. We are left in no doubt what we're getting in this story.
I read this information with a sense of satisfaction. I hadn't been aware of it when I wrote my first novel yet it appears, I had complied with this theory. See what you think. This is my opening from my fantasy novel, The Bastard from Fairyland.
There were fairies at the bottom of my garden and they were torturing someone.
Technically they weren’t fae. My people didn’t like to bloody their hands. They preferred using sadistic bastards like spriggans. Their seven-foot height and ape-like limbs made them ideal fighters. Big enough for me to spot through the spy-hole in my boarded windows. They’d chosen my garden to have fun with their latest victim, currently screaming in a high falsetto. No doubt a deliberate provocation.
They’d come for me. After centuries of waiting, my people had demonstrated how long they could hold a grudge.
I've established my protagonist's misgivings. He doesn't have any reason for his misgivings, only that we find out he's been waiting for something like this to happen for a long time. Centuries in fact. Is it connected to his home being a fortress? I'll add one other point. My opening line has hooked readers very successfully. Reviewers comment on it regularly.
Remaining with Susan DeFreitas, she goes on to explain why opening with character detail remains a useful hook. Character-driven openings tell the reader that they will see the events through this person's eyes. She identifies 3 strengths and 3 challenges:
Strength 1: Audiences like a story which explores character. They enjoy finding out how the character develops, they relate to them.
Strength 2: It is consistently identified in research as being a factor which attracts audiences and sells books.
Strength 3: There is no question whose story is being told. She compares this author to a film director who has cast the characters and ensures the camera remains on them all the time.
Challenge 1: There can be too many PoV. It's easy to introduce other characters to tell the story if it is complex in nature.
Challenge 2: The lack of a character arc. The protagonist doesn't develop enough, there isn't enough change or their goal is too easy to achieve.
Challenge 3: An episodic narrative or a plot lacking in pace. The author goes into too much detail about the character who isn't interesting enough to sustain the story.
Ingredients to open a story
I began by saying a story opening might highlight the writing style or the inciting incident as well as establish the character. Here are some examples to illustrate ways you can do this:
Establish the Theme: This ingredient tells the reader about the issues that will be explored in the story.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy's opening to Anna Karenina. Or Jane Austin's opener to Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” We know what we're going to be getting in our story, it is distilled into one, memorable sentence.
Open with the Bizarre: Here the audience is deliberately confused, causing them to want to know more, they want the strange and bizarre details explained. Best example: George Orwell's 1984 - "It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." Or "All this happened, more or less." by Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five. I love "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." by Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups. This is a favourite of mine because of its quirky description: William Gibson in Neuromancer - “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Introduce your character's voice: It may be risky if that voice is unusual, but it may be a gamble that pays off. A good example which has its critics and its fans, JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye - "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."
Or tell the reader something about the character that establishes their arc, "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Identify the High Stakes/ Play with Timescales: This ingredient applies to stories with danger and high tension. Establishing threat at the outset grabs attention. It can allow you to play with the narrative structure, by describing an event which occurs later in the story. Almost like a Prologue. Such as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez - “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
In this example, you learn little about the inciting incident in its opening line, the rest of the paragraph helps. That said, it provokes the reader to want to know more about this disturbing statement, “It was a pleasure to burn.” Taken from Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradnbury.
Set the Scene: This goes beyond establishing location or the current conditions (like the weather!), it creates an enigmatic situation which hooks the audience. Good example? The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath - “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.”
You'll notice how character features in many of these. Salinger and Plath use the migivings of their protagonists to open his story. Marquez could be accused of self-generated trouble!
Identifying that "gatekeeping" opening to a story is never easy. In my post about 'Inspiration and the Writer' I talk about how, sometimes, the opening can occur at the start of the story writing process. One writing coach suggests leaving the opening until you've finished the first draft, to ensure you find the right place to begin the narrative. However you approach it, the vital point is to recognise its importance. I hope my research and advice is helpful if you're searching for the perfect opener. Good luck!