Thursday, September 29, 2011

Allen on How Not to Open a Story

Anne R. Allen (Food of Love) discusses the importance of a strong story opening and thirteen introductions you ought to avoid. Excerpts:
When we're first diving into a novel, we're not thinking about our readers; we're telling the story to ourselves. All kinds of information will come up, but be aware you'll want to cut most of it or move it to another part of the book when you edit.

And when it comes to that editing -- the first chapter presents your biggest challenge. I've often spent more time on a first chapter than the entire remainder of the book.

On that first page, we have only a few lines to grab the reader and keep her from putting the book back on the shelf. We have to present an exciting hook and fascinating characters that will suck readers in immediately -- but not overwhelm them with too much information.

We also want to promise something unique -- not the same/old same/old they've got on the shelf at home.

But when we start writing fiction or memoir, some of the ideas that come most readily have unfortunately come readily to a whole lot of writers before us, so they've become clich├ęs. ...

Here are a few openings to avoid ...
Read the whole thing. Allen nails to the wall a bunch of classic bad openings, including those that ape Lord Bulwer-Lytton's meteorological descriptions or borrow from the first lines of Moby Dick. But her last suggestion is the one that really hits home for me: "Writing gurus keep telling us to start with action, action, action, but this isn't actually such good advice. We need to be emotionally engaged with a character before we care how many dragoons of doom he slays." Ironically, the grab-the-reader-by-the-collar-and-give-him-a-good-shake opening has rubbed me the wrong way for a long time, not just because it avoids character development, but because so many people employ it. No amount of frenetic action can overcome a boredom born of ubiquity.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Leo Reynolds)


Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks so much for the shout-out. I'm so glad this post spoke to you. I was amazed at how many commenters said they LOVE weather report openers. The action thing has been a problem for me for years. I kept trying to do what they said and plunk the reader in the middle of things, but it meant my openers were way too confusing. I finally got an editor who saw the problem and told me to start with the beginning of the story. What a concept.

Loren Eaton said...

I've never had much luck starting in medias res either. I love it when properly executed, but my attempts usually end up incoherent.