"FIRST, PUT THE KEYS IN THE IGNITION"
"Dear Reader, I would like to inform you that it's all downhill from here."
What? Doesn't sound good? Well, if your story limps out of the gates, that's what you're communicating. Sure, some will wade through muck, and admittedly, I've loved some stories with average to bad openings. But if you want to catch an editor's eye, and of course the reader's, don't screw up the opening.
1) Medias Res Zealotry:
Everyone tells you to start in the middle of the action to make it exciting, but beware meaningless action. Bullets flying, lasers frying, people dying, but we don't know who or why or what or where so we don't care.
2) Someone Told Me To Be Original, But I Forgot:
Cliche openings like someone with amnesia are usually cool... except to the ten fazillion people who've read five kazillion stories with that opening (and movies, TV shows, etc.) They're cool because they worked well, once or twice. See elsewhere for other cliches. Remember that description can be cliche, too.
3) The Sunset Description Contest:
In the dark predawn of literature, someone wrote a lovely description of a sunset. Then others tried to outdo it. Who can write the most jaw-dropping description of a sunset? Yawn. Cliche. And we've all seen sunsets. In fact...
4) Menu: One Bucket of Caviar, Served With Big Spoon
Lovely description can be a great opening, if it has figurative meaning and if it doesn't go on forever. Maybe a dollop of caviar is yummy, but a bucketful will make you barf. Small doses of flabbergastingly awesome description, please, especially in the opening.
5) Dear Reader: My Mind Is Complexer Than Yours, To the Millionth Power
If you start with a long, convoluted sentence that is difficult to parse and doesn't read smoothly, you'll lose at least one reader: me. I don't want to do too much work at the outset. Clarity is key, Daniel-son. (See quote by Robert Sawyer in Lesson #10).
6) Cry Me A River, Build a Bridge, and Get Over It.
Don't open with someone weeping. Not on the first line, page, or chapter. We don't care yet. It comes across as whiny on the character's part and as a crass attempt to engage emotions on the author's part. In fact, save it for at least half way through.
7) "I Am an Effete Literary Snob. Like, to the Max." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Opening with a quotation is fine, but it certainly isn't a sufficient hook. Some readers enjoy them and some find them interesting; many skim past them. And I, for one, am certainly not going to keep reading a boring story because you picked a great quotation. I want the author to demonstrate good writing, not some famous person he found on quotations.com.
8) The Blue Fizoon Gyred My Nimble Wirple, and the Mountains Were Not Happy.
Don't try so hard to be original that you become utterly inexplicable. Grounding the reader in the ordinary accentuates rather than diminishes the strange. Just read the "Big Green Smile" opening cited in my previous lesson. You can make a similar mistake by trying to have such a unique voice (either a character's or a narrator's) that comes across as plain old bizarre.
9) Hint: It's a Kind of Fish, and It's the Color of Apples.
You'll really annoy a reader if you open with a mystery, just like I told you to in the previous lesson, but you never resolve it--a red herring. Maybe it was a trick to get the reader reading and it has nothing to do with the story. Maybe it was the whole point of the story, but you still never answered it, or waited too long to develop it. Boo, hiss!
10) Bob, Who Are These People?
Be careful about opening with an exchange of dialog without letting us know who these people are, where they are, and what the heck they're talking about. As with weeping, the reader doesn't care yet.
BOTTOM LINE:A bad opening line could be the end of the line for many a reader and editor.
NEXT:How to seek out a story idea deliberately based on daily life experiences.
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