Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ask O: How Do I Deliver a Tantalizing Opening? Three No-Nos to Avoid

Happy Wednesday, my writing friends!

Today’s question reminds us to create opening scenes that grab readers into our stories, not bog down with too much back story and set up. Check out my three, “What Not to Do” tips then tune in next week for some practical helps to make your opening enticing.

Openings are important not just because they’re one of the few marketing points we actually control, but also because a good opening invites. “Come, join the party. You’ll see, it’ll be a lot of fun.” An opening must intrigue our readers so they can’t read just one (page that is).

Ax the Back Flash
How do we create a compelling opening? Let’s start with what not to do. I once read a book in which the first three pages were a back flash of a past dinner party. It tarried on and on with precise details about each family member. I soon discovered these characters weren’t players in the story, the dinner party had no real significance, and the details would never come up again, yet this scene was using up valuable “real estate” in the opening.

It’s better to begin with a character in her present situation. Show us what she’s like by the way she acts, not by some psychological word picture of her family dynamics. Yes, we should have her back-story ever in mind, but let’s not suffocate our readers with details.

Drowning in Background
Another problem is when we think we have to explain everything before we can “get to” the story. To help our readers, we flood our openings with background information. “But,” a writer pleads, “my readers need to know about the French Resistance between 1942 and 1945 to understand why my character is dropping from a parachute, don’t they?” They don’t. Just start the story with the parachute plunging. Show your character’s fears, worries, thoughts. Let us smell what he smells and see what he sees. That will make readers keep reading.

I know it’s hard, but everything we create about our characters, all those gold nuggets of research … it all shouldn’t go in our books. And especially not in our openings. Readers want to get involved in the story from the gate/start/get-go, and they’re smart enough to figure out the other stuff—even without us explaining.

I Get the Picture
Many old books precede their plots with hundreds and hundreds (it seems) of pages of description. Like the first chapter of Les Miserables. It’s a long, detailed description of the bishop’s house down to where each piece of furniture is placed. I’m not sure why past authors got away with this. Perhaps it’s because multi-media wasn’t stimulating their readers’ imaginations.

But nowadays, we can’t do it. Even the most exquisitely written opening description will likely cause a reader to plop that book back on the shelf if it drags for more than a couple paragraphs. No, we must sprinkle pithy descriptions in the midst of action, dialogue, and emotion. In a way, we must be even more creative than old Victor Hugo.

To Review:
1. Never start with a back flash that has no relevance to the character
2. Limit background material, especially in the opening
3. Sprinkle description in the midst of your story, not all at the beginning

We're off to a good start! Just knowing what not to do should give some focus to your openings. Don't forget to come back next week to find my insights on enticing readers in your opening.

In the mean time, what opening boo boos have you found? What else should we avoid? Share your insights!

Happy writing,


  1. Great post, Ocieanna. I read it with relish as I just reread the opening of my current WIP and it is pretty slow moving and in need of the tweaks you mention above. I've heard that a historical writer should research thoroughly yet use only about 10% of that research within the novel itself.

    I don't know how those authors of old got away with such lengthy narrative passages either. But you have the best explanation I've heard yet - they didn't have the multi-media of today. Still, I'm saddened that our novels seem to be geared toward that rapid-fire video-game type feel. We're slowly losing the beauty of words or the ability to appreciate or savor them as our attention spans deteriorate. But I'd best not start in on that! Thanks so much for such sound writing instruction.

    Waving at Dawn, Annette, and Angie!

  2. Thank you, Laura! I agree with the 10 percent rule, but it helps to have a wealth of information in my brain to draw from.

    I think novels can still sing with lovely prose these days. We just have to be quick about it. ;) My favorite novels are still the ones that take language seriously, using meter, vivid descriptions, and character depth. We just have to be creative to not bog down the flow.

    Have fun working on your opening!

  3. Great post, Ocieanna. I always struggle with the opening and usually rewrite several times. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to more tidbits on this subject!

  4. This is excellent advice. I've often wondered about those writers form the past, myself. Imagine the Bronte sisters ... there is nothing more tedious, in my mind, than the first one third of JANE EYRE.

  5. Thanks, Dora!

    Tracy, have you read George Elliot? In Adam Bede there are over a hundred pages before the story starts. It's excellent past that point, though.


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