Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Where Is the True Opening In Your Book?

© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights

How do you determine the best place to begin your story? Where should it start? Does the action start with the main character walking down the sidewalk toward a coffee shop, as he steps through the door, or after he's inside? Will the reader see the crisis develop through the character's eyes, or will the reader meet the character when he is already dealing with the end results of that crisis? Should the story begin with the main character or someone/thing else?

There is nothing more important than the opening paragraph. If the writer doesn't immediately grab the reader's attention with a powerful beginning, he or she will just as quickly lose the reader. For every story there is a back story and for me it is imperative to understand every detail of it (or close to it) in order to understand the character's motivation. It's what gives the story purpose, but sometimes the back story gets in the way or is mistaken for the true beginning. The reader doesn't need every detail of the back story, only the essence of what has led the character to the present time - the true beginning.

Another opening killer is description and imagery. I'm not saying these two elements aren't essential - they are, however, there needs to be a good balance between imagery and action which is what makes the reader turn the page. As an example, a while back a fellow writer asked if I would critique the first few chapters of her manuscript. She felt there was something wrong with it but couldn't put her finger on it. It was well written, well paced, had good characterization, no typos, etc. It was perfect except that there was nothing in her opening that pulled me in and urged me to keep reading. Why?

Because her opening paragraph was in the bottom third of the second page.

Everything prior to that paragraph was a telling account of place and time. Once she deleted the excess passages and did some tweaking, her story took off with a strong beginning. A good beginning isn't always the easiest thing to determine. I lost count of how many beginnings I wrote for SILENCED CRY. I ultimately decided the best one placed Homicide Detective Sam Harper in Dr Brannon's office, the police department psychologists, and allowed the back story to emerge through the session; his thoughts and reactions to her questions. Is mine the perfect beginning? That's not for me to say, but it seemed to solve several issues I wanted to address without writing an entire chapter on each.

The Harper/Brannon session opening gives the reader insight into Harper's relationship with his late partner, Frank Gillis, it gives the reader an overview of the events that have led Harper to the psychiatric session, it raises questions to keep the reader reading, it allows Harper to tap into his emotions (something he wouldn't normally reveal), and it helps explain the motivation that carries Harper throughout the book. To have done it any other way would have required writing an entirely new, lengthy subplot that would have dragged the story and distracted the reader from the plot.

Decide for yourself and let me know what you think. You'll find the first chapter of SILECED CRY on my website at:

So my question is: How do you determine the best point in time or moment in your character's life to start your story?

SILENCED CRY, won "August Cover of the Month." It's now in competition with eleven other covers from 2007 for "Cover of the Year." I'd much appreicate your vote! Voting ends on April 15 on the Erin Aislinn site.

Autographed copies are available from my website.


James Goodman said...

That was a fantastic beginning chapter, Marta. It definately made me want to keep turning the page. I like the use of dialogue to set the scene and mood rather than descriptive paragraphs.

I've officially put Silenced Cry on my TBR list. :D

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Wonderful article, Marta. And such a critical issue. I wonder if I went back over my twelve books now - knowing what I've learned in the past ten years - if I'd think I really started in the perfect spot??? Of course, that applies to everything to do with writing skills. It's so hard to have a stable of books that precede your current skill level. But that's the way it goes - we learn as we write. We write more. We learn more. And so on, and so on. I often wonder how Dean Koontz feels about his first book?

Marta Stephens said...

Hey thanks James. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book as much as the first chapter! :)

Aaron, I don't think we're every satisfied. The writing can always use some improvement.

For those of you who remember the old Carol Burnett Show, she had a great skit that took place in an author’s mind as she typed her novel. The skit was about the characters being moved around each time she changed her mind about the scene (i.e.: “John walked in and sat on the couch.” Er…no “John walked in, slammed the door, and yelled for Christine.” Er…no. “John dropped to his knees and cried.”

You get the picture. It was hilarious to see this poor character stop in mid action each time the author changed her mind. I thought about this skit several times during the numerous rewrites of SILENCED CRY’s first chapter.

Julie Ann Shapiro said...

It's not so much a conscious choice on the part of the writer, but rather the characters. I know that sounds a bit esoterical but once I really know my characters and have worked through more than a dozen drafts it's clear what starts before what.

I've recently returned to editing my third novel. Yes, draft number twelve!

I debated back and forth last night about onr word in the opening line even though for a long time this chapter has started the book.

I wasn't sure if the young narrator would in fact know the word "bombing" and that's what she was in until someoned named it as such. So for me that word is now removed. Because ultimately it's about what is true to the characters experience.

While the word bombing may make it more sensatitional and attract some readers it is not the thrust of the story. The story is about the girl's journey to find out why she was in a building when it blew up and the role her family may or may not have played in it.

Kim Smith said...

Man, you are spot on here, M. I have begun to automatically cut the first page of everything I write, cuz I know it is NOT the real beginning. I know I am on the right track when one or another of my critters says, this beginning is too slow. Then I can cut and feel good about it.