Monday, April 20, 2015

Openings


It’s a writer’s truism: the most important paragraph is the first one. It opens the door to the reader, inviting him or her to come into the place you have prepared for them. Your opening must convince them that this place is somewhere they want to visit, and perhaps stay for a long time.

I have two rules for writing openings, which I (almost) always try to live up to. Here they are:

The first rule is to provide a few sensory details in the first paragraph, so the reader feels as though they are “there.”  What does the character or setting look like? Colors, shapes, designs? What sounds are there? Loud voices, whistles, screams, bells? What smells? Strong like gasoline? Sweet like lilacs? Wet wool drying on a radiator? What tactile sensations? Soft wind on skin? The rough scrape of a poorly shaved chin? 

The second rule is that the first scene should either encapsulate or foreshadow the theme of the entire chapter or book.

Here’s an example from a book I worked on a few years ago. It is a memoir for an 80+ year old man, who was a curmudgeonly but lovable fellow. It contains his musings on the “big” questions of life – like how did the world get so screwed up and what can we do about it; who or what is God; the differences between men and women; and other topics philosophers have been arguing over for centuries. My client believed he had answers for many of these questions.


The first chapter in the book is his take on the meaning of life. Yes, really. So my problem in writing the opening was how to provide sensory details on such a big, vague subject, and give the reader an idea of what the whole book was going to be about. This was my solution:

In the first scene, he and his cousin, also in his eighties, are standing together at their grandfather’s grave. They are arguing over their different versions of where Grandpa is now. The cemetery overlooks San Francisco Bay, and the crisp wind blowing off the Bay ruffles their gray hair up so high they look like fighting cocks.

What do you think? Would you want to come inside this book?

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit Primary-Sources.com.

11 comments :

  1. I know my first paragraph/page will suck so I move on and fix it later. Plus, not being a plotter, I'm not always sure who my characters are yet, so I know things will change. I just want to make sure to put something interesting in there, although I'd be hard pressed to tell anyone the theme of most of my books. I just write them. If I think to much, everything goes sideways.

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    1. When I write fiction, I too do not always know the direction the book will go or which themes will present themselves. But when I edit or ghostwrite memoir, I have to know where I'm going since I'm not really the one going there!

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  2. Well, Kim, you asked a direct question, so I give a direct answer ... no ... but not because of your opening paragraph, which is just fine ... it's because of the subject: meaning of life? I'd prefer something more complex ... like what really happened at Roswell?

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  3. Both the writer and editor in me believe in the importance of that opening hook. In my own books, I start with a newspaper article (fictional) that sets the stage and determines locale for at least part of the story. The first paragraphs or chapter(s) flesh out that article and lead into the heart of the tale. Typically, I do not enjoy books that go on page after page with narrative and detail that fail to pull me in. (Hence, I have never read Gone with the Wind from cover to cover, but I loved the movie.) :-)

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    1. Oooops...forgot to answer your question. Would I read the memoir based on your opening scene? Typically, I don't read memoirs, but I do find your hook intriguing enough that I might give the book a second thought -- and maybe even buy it.

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    2. Oh, I love writing (and reading) memoir! People have such fascinating stories, every bit as compelling as fiction -- if they're written well, of course. Thank you for your second thought, Linda!

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  4. After the cover and title draw me to look and the premise has hooked me, I always open the book (or look inside on Amazon) and start reading. The opening few pages cement whether I take a chance on the author or not. The writing has to be good, the opening cannot be a huge info dump, and something in that first chapter has to enchant me: a character, a way with words, a unanswered question, a challenge, the inciting incident, a special world. Give me something to tempt my palate and I'll bite. I won't forgive you if I get into the story and it all goes, south, but I purchase based on that first taste.

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    1. I so agree, Diana. I especially like the unanswered questions.

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  5. Thanks for this post! I've been wondering about my opener for a current WIP. Do you think it's distasteful to drop an f-bomb in the first line? On the one hand, I like the strong language bc I want to convey a tone of dissatisfaction. On the other hand, I don't want people to think the book is vulgar. Your thoughts?

    Here's my opener:

    Fuck this shit.
    Literally.
    Kate slumped against the wall opposite the toilet, flung the filthy rag into the bucket of gray tepid water and readjusted the purple paisley bandana tied over her nose and mouth. She’d known that the century-old house needed work, but in her mind that had meant fashion upgrades and putting in modern conveniences like a dishwasher and a microwave. A washer and a dryer. Not a septic system, a total rewiring of electricity, plumbing beyond the single pipe in the kitchen and well – this.

    Thanks!

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    1. To me, Kate doesn't sound dissatisfied; she sounds angry. Is the story about anger?

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  6. Yes, Kim, I would read the book based on your opening. I, too, really enjoy memoirs and have been reading more and more of late.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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