Setting Off ~ The Writer’s Journey Part 2

It's a dangerous business Frodo... | Tolkien, Lotr quotes, Senior quotes

In my last post in this series, which you can read here if you missed it, I talked about how important it is to begin writing your story right. Even if you have a great idea, if you don’t know where your story is going, it becomes easy to be discouraged and give up. Now, I mentioned a bit of this last time when I spoke of plotter vs. panster. But, for this post, I’m going a bit more in depth with story starters.

Regardless of your writing process, you have to start your story (and consequently your chapters) the right way. It will save you such a headache during the editing process, trust me. While this isn’t as important as a great many people stress it to be (honestly, come on, who’s going to care how epic your opening is if the rest of your story is lame!), it is important to begin on the right foot.

Say you have the most amazing plot-line, epically proportioned world-building, and deep-as-the-ocean characters, it’s not going to be worth anything if your introduction to them is mediocre. Put it this way, if I as the reader don’t have a good enough bait to lure me into reading your story, then I’m not even going to bother checking your work out. This is the only reason having a great story introduction is important. Your work as an author is dependent upon your audience who are willing to pay you for all your efforts at making this great story. And if your work isn’t intriguing enough to draw them into paying to read what you’ve worked so hard on, then it’s pointless.

As for great chapter openings, this is the secondary reason why having good openings is important. Obviously, the most crucial one is that for your first chapter and/or prologue. The secondary one is for each chapter. This goes hand-in-hand with cliff-hanger endings, which I’ll talk about later, but the chapter openings are important for both the writer and the reader. And here’s why.

  1. They help YOU get excited to write what the chapter’s about (same goes for book openings too.)
  2. They help the READER get excited to read that particular chapter, especially if they really should be doing something else. Don’t ask why I am encouraging readers to read instead of do school-work or other things, but I am for the sake of this post. If your book is interesting enough to make people forget to do important things or forget about things that distress them, then you’re probably doing the right thing.

Now, to actually talk about what makes a good opening…

To put it simply, you need good bait. Generally something short and sweet, or at least something that is unique enough to grab someone’s attention.

There are three major types of openings which are the following:

  1. Description
  2. Action
  3. Dialogue

The first is most popular and generally to be found in any book. Action is one that is slowly becoming more and more common in new releases, followed by dialogue. However, it’s not always recommended to begin your book’s first line with dialogue as it’s hard to handle well. But more on that later. (Chapter beginnings with dialogue are fine, no worries.)

Let’s go with an example of each, shall we?

  1. Description example:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens; A Tale of Two Cities

You probably recognized this one as it’s a very famous opening. And maybe you can see why. While it is a very long sentence (we don’t usually write like this anymore!), it gives you right from the start an idea of the setting of the book. It’s written in a bit of an oxymoronic style, but the whole book is supposed to be an irony of the life of so-called liberation after the French Revolution. Not to mention, this opening is so unique that most people recognize it as a great quote. It’s descriptive, yes, but it also draws in the reader’s attention immediately to the story.

2. Action example:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

J.R.R. Tolkien; The Hobbit

Taken from one of the most popular fantasy classics, The Hobbit opens up with a single line of action. Granted, this is written in passive voice, but this is also a highly recognizable quote. Right from the beginning we are told that this book is going to be about a hobbit, some sort of creature that lives (action keyword is lived) in a hole. But before any of us start imaging some sort of fantastical mole, Tolkien goes on to describe what sort of hole this is. This opening sort of fits under descriptive opening, but I put it under action because the very first line is action. A hobbit living in a hole implies action of a sort.

Another example of an action-like opening is this:

“Sandy yawned.”

Verity A. Buchanan; The Journey

This single opening line is without description and already plunges the reader into the story as if we’re going down a waterfall. Already it implies that a character, presumably a main character, is yawning, either from boredom or tiredness. Most of us will be curious as to why Sandy is yawning and will continue reading.

3. Dialogue opening:

“Call me Ishmael.”

Herman Melville; Moby Dick or The Whale

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Great Gatsby

I gave two examples for this to showcase two different lengths. As you can both see, these are addressed to the reader. While not all dialogue openings begin this way, these are some of the two most famous ones. The first is an introduction to the reader, as if the character is talking to you directly over a cup of tea. The second reads more like a memoir, but it’s equally interesting to the potential reader and therefore does its job, regardless whether the book is actually a memoir or not.

Hopefully these examples help illustrate why openings are important. Imagine, for example, if The Hobbit didn’t begin with its iconic opening and instead plunged directly into a certain short individual getting bombarded with a wizard showing up on his doorstep and saying “good morning.” While it would still be a good morning, I daresay most of us wouldn’t have gotten that far in the story.

Openings are important and it’s good to get them done right. I hope these examples help encourage you to get creative and maybe get ideas of your own! Feel free to share any openings of your stories, books, WIP’s, and more below! I’d love to see the ones you all have!

Until next time…

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