1. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Opening Up a Novel

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by cybrxkhan, Jun 17, 2009.

    I think most of us here probably know that the opening (i.e. the first 5 pages, the first chapter, etc.) is the crucial part of our book - our one and only chance to grab in the reader (and the agent/editor/publisher). Lately, however, I've realized that I'm starting to have problems with my opening. Perhaps it's my self-critical personality, but it never seems that my openings were really the "hook" they needed to be - they seemed to kind of drag on. Unlike other parts of the novel, with more interesting scenes, my opening(s) always seemed just kind of... there.

    So, anyhow, I thought I'd just ask if anyone has any advice or suggestions when it comes to openings? And not just about the mechanics or the kind of suspense an opening needs, but what kind of scenes, what kinds of incidents, do you think generally make better openings?
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    There's no formula for a good opening....which sucks, cuz that would make things so easy. Some books open with a description of the setting (or the weather :S), others describe the history of the MC, others start with a kind of introduction to the book before jumping into the narrative, others dive straight into their main plot line. It depends on who you're writing for, what style you are writing in, what genre, how long the book is, what kind of narrative it is....so many thing...this is a very unhelpful post....but its really a question that simply cannot be answered....I mean, go to your bookcase and grab any bunch of random books, chances are they open in completely different ways, and yet, they've all been published.....so the only thing is to make sure its well written so you don't give publishers a reason to throw it away...
     
  3. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Cybrxkhan,

    As was said, there is not 'formula'.

    Start with something that will interest a reader. Get them to wondering, why is this happening?, or thinking, hmmm, that's interesting--where is this going? or some action that draws them in--what will the results be?

    Have something of value going on, something at stake, something propelling a character into action. If you ask me, avoid giving exposition on the scenery or setting or backstory.

    Look and see how your favorite authors did it. Maybe not their 4th or 5th novel, after they've established an audience. When that happens, I am not indicating that they're lazy or not working as hard to get a reader's attention, but that having proven themselves, they are given a little more leeway at times.

    Hope this helps.

    Terry
     
  4. OrdinaryJoe
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    OrdinaryJoe Member

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    If you are having this problem you may want to go ahead and write your novel first, then go back and add a prologue. It allows you to grab from anywhere in your book. Say you have a scene somewhere in the book where your main character is facing a life or death situation. You could use some of that material as the opening hook of your book. It allows you to take the time to develope your book into what you want it to be, without having to worry about starting off with some big bang or anything. Even just using a short section of dialogue between two characters can suffice to create an opening hook. here's a short example.

    "Six, maybe seven more down here. It's hard to tell with all the parts thrown around like this.They're like the other ones though, bite marks around the face and necks," Joe knelt down next to one of the bodies and shined his flashlight onto one of the cresent shaped marks. "Do you think the bodies are chewed on before or after they die?"

    "I hate to admit it Joe, but, I think before," Sandra replied.
    :eek:

    This small section of dialogue could have come from the middle of a book. But expanded on, it could easily become a prologue for a book.

    Anyways I think you should get what I am trying to say.
     
  5. dagda24
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    dagda24 Member

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    I definitely agree with Ordinary Joe's comments about just going ahead and writing the whole thing.

    Personally I don't go in for prlogues quoted from later in the story, but once you have the whole thing down on paper it's much easier to go back and focus your beginning.
     
  6. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    That's much easier said than done...I can't move on unless I have a solid opening, and find non-linear writing extremely constricting on the creative process...
    I guess if it works for you, its good, but I don't think just ignoring the opening and hoping it works itself out eventually is a good strategy...
     
  7. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Thanks all for the help.

    I suppose my problem is not so much my lack of knowledge on the techniques of starting up an opening, but deciding what the heck the opening is in the first place. I keep changing what I intend the opening to be - first it's a huge boom explosion scene (starting with that much action is not my style, so I dropped it), then it's some typical schoolday (boring), and so on. It seems quite hard for me to figure out what scene to start with.

    Personally I don't like the idea of using the prologue with quotes from another part of the story, but I guess that's just my style rather than whether it'd work or not.
     
  8. dagda24
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    dagda24 Member

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    It's not a case of ignoring it, or hoping it sorts itself out, it's recognising that it isn't going to be perfect first time, and that it will need to be worked on at a later point. It's certainly not non-linear writing either, if anything it's post-write editing.

    A lot of people find the first few chapters difficult because they're yet to settle in to the style and rythym of the story, which is why it can beneficial to just run with the beginning you have, making the conscious decision to not worry about it until you have more of the story written down and have settled in to the rythym of it.
     
  9. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    Often, we try to start the story too early. We tell the readers a lot of things that the writer needs to know, but the reader doesn't, at least not the first rattle out of the box. Start the story where the story starts. The reader doesn't have to know everything about the people and the setting to get interested in the book. The reader just needs a question in their mind that will keep them turning pages.
     
  10. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    Are you writing the opening first? If so, maybe try writing it last, once you understand the kind of portent and tantalizing tidbits you need to plant in the opening. You might find that something you wrote later on in the storyline or development of the overall novel serves as a better opener, because it places the reader where you want him to be in order to be propelled into the heart of your story.

    Think proper "portent" and "prepping" your reader, rather than "hook."

    That's just my two, as a reader.
     
  11. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    My advice is to just start the writing. The opening to the story will come somewhere in the first few pages.

    Think of it as pruning.

    Once the story is written, read it again and find the place in the beginning where things really get going. There's your opening. Trim the prior stuff away. The bit you've trimmed off might be suitable to be planted elsewhere in the story or may simply need to go to the rubbish heap.
     
  12. seta
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    seta Contributing Member

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    I used to do only short stories because I had trouble planning. Once I got planning and structure down, the rest is coming naturally. We'll see how I do once I'm published.

    Anyways, for my first draft, I'm focusing primarily on characters. After that I will go back through and check for consistency and other mechanisms, such as word choice and tension.

    What I did first was write up a plot outline, summarizing each chapter/event in one or two sentences. Some of the original points have been split into two chapters. But I have this set of events which my characters are going to encounter, and I let the rest of it drive itself. I can always go back and clean it up later. That's all part of my plan.
     
  13. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Thanks all, again.

    To be honest, I've already finished the first draft of the novel I'm working on right now, and I already have a pretty good idea of the plot, the characters, the themes, and so forth. I guess I'm just having a problem figuring out where to put that starting mark, because I keep shifting it back and forth all over the place ever since I began this thing. I've cut down on a lot of the useless crap especially at the beginning already, so now it's more or less me trying to figure out what kind of starting situation is best for the story. But if it must take a long time to figure that out, then maybe it's for the better - no need to rush through the most crucial part of a novel, after all.

    Again, thanks for the advice, everyone!
     
  14. Kirvee
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    Kirvee Contributing Member

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    I've been told that, although the first chapter should be the hook, it should also be the chapter that introduces your MC(s) and his/her/their problem(s). Their problem doesn't neccessarily have to be the only problem in the whole book, but by introducing a problem as well as the characters involved then you open a door to more roads to follow when writing.

    That's for if you want to go for a more mild opening. Other times it might be best to start a novel "in medias res"-style. Like if you were writing a war novel, a fitting place to start might be in the middle a huge battle through the eyes of a soldier, or a helicopter pilot, or maybe a bomb just went off near where a reporter was doing a news story.

    It all depends on the kind of story you're writing. Sometimes, as previously said by someone else, it's best to just start writing and figure out all the fine stuff later. Whatever makes you feel comfortable.

    There are two examples I can give you for a "mild" opening. The first is from one of my novels involving time travel. At the moment, I have it opening with dialouge of a high school teacher admonishing my MC for doing a ****ty job on his latest assignment. While having her yell at my MC as the first line might catch a reader's attention, it's still a mild opening because it's not really "in the middle" of anything action-oriented. Another of my novel's opens with me describing the scenary of a sunrise out in a country area as I move the descriptions into a barn where puppies had just been born (and therefore I have a sort of allegory from that scene).

    Another interesting way to open a novel is to open it with the ending and then have it jump back to the beginning to explain how that ending came to be.
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i'd never advise leaving the opening till later, because if you don't have an opening, how the heck can you know what should come next?...

    what i might counsel, is to go with the opening that comes to you unbidden, and continue from there... don't worry about whether it's worded perfectly, or whatever, just let it get you started and the story flowing...

    you can always perfect an opening later, but i don't see how you can write one 'after the fact'...
     
  16. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    ^Well, I already have an opening - one in the first draft, four scrapped ones for the second draft, and the current one for the second draft that I'm just keeping there for now, after I realized I should start writing the story anyways and returning to the draft later. I mean I guess I know what my intentions in the opening scenes are. It's like I already have the cookie cutter, but I don't know what type of dough to put in it, if you know what I mean.
     
  17. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Haha cute metaphor.
    But yeah, choosing what to include in your intro and how to express it is very difficult. People will start making hypotheses and looking for patterns from the very opening of your novel, so the opening has to put them on the right track in both cases. For that reason, its important that you know what's going on in the opening so you can make sure the reader is following the right things, looking for the right patterns, in the novel that follows, but it doesn't matter so much that its perfectly written the first time round.
    Also, for that reason, as a general rule, I wouldn't start a novel with an excerpt from the middle. The only book I can think of that did it well is The Secret History (Tartt), and the reason that was effective was because it gave away a crucial bit of information that changed how we viewed the characters from the very outset (rather than having our perceptions shift dramatically in the middle of the book).
     
  18. tbeverley
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    tbeverley Senior Member

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    I'm constantly rewriting the opening of my novel, which is about 100 pages in writing already. I tend to enjoy writing the beginning most, so I wake up some mornings and write a new beginning for the sake of it, then put that on top of the old beginning. I suppose I have about three beginnings which now make up the first chapter.

    When I think of writing a beginning, I think of writing something that defines the entire book. And I think to myself: If I were in a bookstore, opened this completely random book to see how it starts, what would I want to read? I try to write a beginning that both defines the book and is styled in a way that would make me decide to buy the book. This, for me, is more important: not the action, not the character development, but the message of the bok and the style of writing that will define the rest of the book. I read Thomas Mann simply because I could tell from the first page of one of his novels that the rest of the writing, no matter the plot or characters, was going to be in a style that I would thoroughly enjoy.

    So, my two cents: In the first paragraph, define the book and introduce your style of writing. As a reader, what I want to see in a bookstore in those first few pages is - what I will be getting if I buy it.
     
  19. thabear637
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    thabear637 Member

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    My question is, does the "opening" you are writing have to be really where the story begins? If there other interesting parts in the book later on..would they fit as the beginning and just work from there?
     
  20. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, think of the books you've read. How do they start? Some start right at the beginning, some in the middle, some at the end. Some start w/an event that's not what the main story will be about, but it gives you something about the character or situation that is related in some way and is an interesting hook.

    When the opening makes me wonder WHY? or has a character I can completely relate to, or is hilarious...those are what make me want to read the next page too.
     
  21. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    I really just try my best to write a good first chapter, and then I have someone read it and ask them if it makes them want more. I don't really have a lot of control over my plots anyhow.

    ...I would say that, perhaps, the idea is to give the readers a taste of what to expect, but at the same time not really show them exactly what they're getting.
     
  22. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    successful novelists do the latter all the time... you can start at any point in the plot you want to open with, as long as you make it make sense to do so...
     

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