Openings: How do you do them?

I guess openings are forever going to elude me. At my beginner stage, I used to start my stories too far before the inciting incident: Gwendolynn von Holden was born with striking purple eyes and giggling and cooing until full sentences emerged out of her mouth at nine months. At age two…You get the picture. For a long time, I cut most of the childhood out and tried a prologue to fit in a crucial part at age 6, but that never seemed to go well.

After I figured out how to close in on the turning point, I gave my readers too much information or too many new words at the beginning of the story. It was particularly easy to do with fantasy where I felt like I needed to explain the world right away: Gwendolynn Holden wanted to finish her father’s quest to find the drachen stone that he had abandoned when he met her mother. The drachen stones were what the Gods used to communicate with their dragons. The Gods had disappeared centuries ago but left behind their dragons. The God Darnell had set his dragon loose with a sorcerer before he left, and when the sorcerer died, Loth’s drachen stone was lost. Yawn.

Then I decided to try in media res and not explain anything. It was a bad decision because the readers didn’t care about the protagonist: Gwendolynn felt the year of unused magic pricking at her spine as the poet mocked her. His face had contorted from blindingly handsome to smug and insidious in one moment of sarcasm. Gwen’s embarrassment fed the silver magic, and she watched a strand of it slink out of her head and into the poet’s mind, twisting him from a foe to a friend—his laughter cut off and replaced by puppy dog eyes.

Spending a couple of years on short fiction, I thought I had a better grasp on my beginnings. Unfortunately, there are still rules I don’t know about. The current rule I didn’t realize is “Starting a character waking up is cliché and an agent won’t read it.” Talk about embarrassed. I felt like that was something I should’ve known after all these years of writing. I was just trying to start close enough to the inciting incident to hook the reader, but not so far away that the reader doesn’t care about the character. Since the inciting incident happened mid-morning, waking up seemed the way to go: Gwen popped up in bed—her spine vibrated with a year’s worth of unused magic and sent a tingling sensation throughout her body. Though the sun wasn’t up yet, the room was bright from the silver sheen her body cast.

Wrong.

So since I still have no idea what I’m doing in regards to starting stories, please send me your rules, even if you think it’s one I know. If I get enough, I’ll post them up for easier reference for the benefit of my great blog readers. Thanks for your help!

13 thoughts on “Openings: How do you do them?

  1. That “waking up rule” is there because too many people start a story with a laundry list of things the character does in the morning without any sense of conflict or urgency attached. “Sarah woke up in the morning, got out of bed, got dressed, had breakfast, brushed her teeth, brought in the paper, and eventually something vaguely interesting might happen, I promise.”

    I think you *can* start a story with a wake up, as long as it is relevant to the incoming conflict and this is made quickly apparent–like, by the end of the first paragraph apparent. A recent story I wrote had my MC waking up at the beginning, but from a recurring dream that’s to do with a past trauma that she will confront during the story.

    Oh, and this: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.” The first paragraph of a pretty successful novel. 😉 The wake-up leads straight into the hook, so it works.

  2. Thanks Danielle :) My husband was quick to point out to me that Harry Potter started waking up and then corrected himself. “Oh wait. It starts with a prologue. Another thing wrong.” :)

    I get frustrated trying to figure out when to break the rules and when not to. But I think you’re right that if it leads to the problem right away, it should be fine.

  3. I didn’t know about the waking up rule either. i just wrote a story where the main character woke up in the opening paragraph. The story was called Hibernation and it was the whole point of the story, waking up and seeing what happens. I think rules are made to be broken; usually. Have a character wake up, go to sleep, sing a song, talk to somebody, etc. As long as it’s interesting and grabs the reader’s attention. Your stories have always caught my attention, Melinda. Keep up the good work.

  4. Wait. What!? Fictional characters sleep? Well, crud. There’s my problem.

    Love the HG example!

    As far as HP, I agree that it breaks lots of rules — both the fun kind and the kind for writing good stories. Starting early in the story with a “wake up” establishes Harry in his mundane muggle world in the Dursley’s oppressive home. The reveal would not have had the contrasting coolness without it, and Harry wouldn’t have been the same boy who lived in the cupboard under the stairs. It built character. And later Harry kind of woke up to who he really was, which maybe made the “wake up” bit of foreshadowing. (Am I grabbing at straws?)

    So I basically agree, it all depends on whether a “wake up” matters to the story or not. Is it there for a specific purpose in the story or is it just a starting place because the details of the story have to start somewhere.

      • After thinking about this some more I’m adding some thoughts.

        Like everybody else wrote, the opening needs to grab you and be really interesting (not just matter to the story like I wrote). I KNOW that in my head, but I think I need to be reminded and re-check my openings.

        Going back to the HP opening, the name of the first chapter, “The Boy Who Lived,” pulls you in rather well for so few words partly because it’s so ordinary that it encourages us to imagine that something extraordinary must have happened. “He lived? Did he almost NOT live? Well, what happened?” But I think we’re also pretty well pulled it because of the Dursleys — they get us upset. The Dursleys become the villian we love to hate. We’ll keep reading more to see how awful they’ll be.

        And you know I re-read my last story after this discussion and I think I can safely say that I must have been using a literary technique to make the opening as boring as possible. 😉

        And sorry for all the HP references! I’ve just probably read HP more than anything else ever so it’s pretty well stuck in my head. :)

        • Thanks for more thoughts, Deb! Using HP is good because so many people have read it. I agree that an opening needs to grab you. My problem are edicts that are handed down as if on high. “Don’t start your story with the character waking up” struck me wrong when somebody stated it to me on a forum. I posted the first three lines of a contemporary romance and most people just told me not to start with her waking up because too many people do. I would’ve rather they said, “It’s not interesting” or “the character is boring” or whatever. Anything but an edict that doesn’t help me with things like word choice, or tone, or setting. I have since changed it to starting someplace else. I won’t repost it because they might say “Riding an elevator up to work is too cliche” and again I won’t get anything useful :)

          The beginning of your flash was not boring…just went on a little too long with the descriptions :)

  5. I listed 10 Lousy Story Starts on my blog a couple of years ago. Here they are if you care to share them. I am guilty of the driving in the car bit and the waking up to a phone call or alarm clock (years ago). We’ve all done it.

  6. What an interesting post!

    My first piece of advice: check out the site I’ve linked below. It contains interviews from several agents regarding opening scenes, opening lines, and what to avoid. It has been a personal goldmine.

    http://chasingthecrazies.wordpress.com/the-f3/

    Yes, there are standard openings to steer clear of (dreams, waking, eating breakfast, riding in a car), but like others mentioned above, they can work well if done correctly. As far as I understand, most ‘waking up’ openings or others like it don’t work because they’re boring. We see the MC being all: ‘Oh, hum. My life is so dull. Now I get ready. Now I eat breakfast. Now I go to work/school.’

    Mind-numbing, eh? You bet.

    But imagine an MC waking up to find her stalker standing at the foot of her bed. Still boring? Hardly. I can feel my own stomach churning.

    One time someone told me to revise meaning of “in media res” from ‘in action’ to ‘with tension’. Basically, start with tension and mystery and intrigue and uniqueness and voice all in the very first line. Don’t be boring. Showcase the most exceptional thing about your character and their situation right at the beginning. Even if that character isn’t aware of what’s special about them or their story, you can still hint at it in the first lines. “Three weeks ago, I never realized things would turn out like this, but then again, I never realized a lot of things about myself.”

    Here’s the opening line to one of my favorites and my opinion on why it works:

    Fight Club (the novel): “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”

    The first half of the sentence is boring, but it’s so short and simple that we go straight to the second part of the sentence, about the gun and dying, and now it’s anything but dull. In a single sentence, the author has set up the following: the tone (dark and gritty), the theme (order vs. chaos), the relationship between Tyler and the MC (dominant and submissive), the POV (first person observer), the voice. Masterful!

    The first half of the sentence is mundane and something we can relate to. Everyone knows someone who’s been a waiter. But the second half turns the mundane on its head. ‘Whoa, how did this guy go from being a waiter to having a gun shoved in his mouth?’ I’m intrigued, and eager to read on.

    One last piece of advice: I’ve also learned that a unique reference to one of the underused senses helps to ground the reader inside the story. (It smelled like someone had sprayed my grandmother’s perfume over a puddle of cat piss). Yummy. Balance helps too. Too much description, action, dialogue or narration right at the beginning of the story can be a turnoff.

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