Openings! As readers, we love 'em. They suck us right into the story. As writers, we hate 'em because they're so hard to write! Well, we don't actually hate them, we love them too. Because, after all, we're readers as well.
If only we can get our own openings right!
Joining us as Featured Writer this week is Kristy Baxter, the recently-agented author of a YA/Contemporary Fantasy called Grim Light. Her agent is Marlene Stringer. I'm going to turn it over to Kristy as she gives us her take on openings. I am lucky enough to have Kristy as my critique partner, and I read an early draft of this novel. I only mention this because she refers to me quite a bit.
by Kristy Baxter
I love starting a new novel.
I hate starting a new novel.
On the one hand, you have this joyous new creation to begin, and you don't know what it'll look like when you're done...but you know the ride's going to be awesome and terrifying and awesome all over again.
But on the other hand...argh. Openings! That first sentence is so incredibly important that you could spend weeks trying to make it perfect. And then all you're doing is waiting in line as you imagine what fun that roller coaster will be.
For my most recently completed novel, Grim Light, I decided to dive right into the action. My heroine foresaw a sad event coming, and then a moment later she saw a boy who would be very important to her, although she didn't know it yet.
The problem, as Tia pointed out: the reader didn't have enough time to get to know my protagonist, even a little bit, before these things happened. I needed to develop a little bit of sympathy, give the reader at least a little bit more about my protagonist, before I enmeshed her in all this emotional turmoil.
I stared at my opening paragraph. I loved that paragraph! It had been there since the beginning, the one that started it all. Every time I got other ideas or tried to start other novels, I read that opening and was sucked back in. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized Tia was right. Who cares what happens to this girl if they don't know who she is?
And as much as writing a novel, a short story, or anything at all is a roller-coaster ride, it's also a tightrope walk. I wanted to give the reader interesting action, but I also wanted to give her a smidgen of character development. So I pulled on my sequined leotard and grabbed that long stick-thing for balancing, and I hopped on the tightrope.
In order to compromise, I made the first sentence foreshadow what was to come. Then I made my heroine happy, because if we see her happy then we know how hard that fall will be. And I made sure that fall came within the first page or so, in an effort not to bore the reader.
I won't deny that it was tough. I'd never imagined Grim Light opening any other way. But when I saw the end result, I was very satisfied. I felt like I knew my protagonist better, even after spending months in her head already.
How about you? How do you manage to walk the tightrope? Have your openings all been picture perfect? Did you start too soon, as many do, or start too late, as I did? And how does your opening shape your view of your protagonist or narrator?
It's Tia again. I'm blushing. Thanks, Kristy.
Personally, I start too soon, but I'm always prepared to delete with impunity. I'm also prepared to offer up one of my own openings for your critiquing pleasure. This is from a lighthearted spy fantasy, which I call a mashup of Jane Austen and James Bond.
I hurried up to the embassy as if I belonged there. A bakery coach had pulled up near the side entrance where the kitchen chimneys were, so I headed that way. I searched around for someone who looked like a butler. He soon emerged to direct the unloading. I went up to him and curtsied. I was careful to make it a quick bob, rather than the genteel swoop I had learned during my youth. It was difficult to unlearn what had once been drilled into me.
I like the pacing of your opening a lot. Most of your sentences are short and choppy, which conveys the urgency of the situation while staying true to how Tory [the protagonist] would think in that situation. The first sentence grabs you right off, because you wonder, "Why doesn't she belong there?" and that tension pulls you along. It also gives you a great idea of Tory's more analytical thought process.
The only thing I would change: sentences three through five are all roughly the same length, and while choppiness is great for that opening, you want to avoid establishing a lulling sort of rhythm. I would insert a longer sentence in there, or possibly combine parts of two sentences, just to avoid that. Read it aloud and you'll probably catch my meaning.
I guess I'll do that. What did you think? Feel brave enough to post your own opening for general feedback? Got any questions? Comment away!