Writing Your Book, part III: The Opening Pages

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Over the past two weeks we’ve discussed the preparatory stages of writing our novels. We began with the research, worldbuilding, character development, and, for those who choose to do so, plot outlines that we do at the outset. Last week we talked about establishing voice at different levels — Authorial, Genre, Book, Character. This week, we’re going to start our book.

Last week, my discussion of voice overlapped with Catie’s posts on the same subject. This week I’m overlapping with Faith a bit in talking about book openings. Again, I think that having multiple perspectives on any of these topics is a good thing. We all approach writing differently, and what works for one of us might not work for another.

I often refer to myself as “an inertial writer.” [Inertia: a body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.] I write very slowly at the beginning of a new book or story — sometimes even at the start of a new chapter. The first day of actually writing a new book, I might only get a paragraph or two. On the second day, I’ll be lucky to get two pages. The third day is a little better, and by the end of the first week, I’m usually writing at close to my normal daily pace of eight pages, or about 2,000 words. It’s like getting a big rock rolling — it takes a while to kick my creativity into motion, but once it gets going, it glides along pretty well.

I have no secrets or tips for overcoming this initial inertia; if I did, I’d use them myself. I’ve come to see it as a natural part of my creative process. I don’t fight it anymore. And I’d suggest the same approach if you find that your first few days of writing are equally slow, or even if you encounter the same problem as you start a new chapter or part of your book. Creativity is not linear, it’s not always logical or consistent. Sometimes we have to be patient with ourselves and accept that some parts of writing a book are harder than others. If, after a couple of weeks, your output hasn’t improved, then you might want to consider a different approach. But for those first pages, even the first chapter or two, give yourself room to grow accustomed to your new project.

What about content? I want my opening lines to reach out and grab my reader by the collar. A novel, as opposed to a short story, can move at a leisurely pace. It doesn’t necessarily have to be nonstop action. Like a piece of music — be it a symphony or your favorite rock album — a good book (in my opinion) will have varying dynamics and rhythms: Vivace for some sections; adagio for others. Forte and then pianissimo. At times a book should leave a reader breathless with excitement and suspense. It should shock and frighten and arouse. But at other times, a reader should have a chance to catch his breath and regroup a little. There should be humor and quiet romance and time for a character (and the reader) to reflect. That said, I don’t believe that the opening pages are a time for reflection and calm. Like the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, they should smack you in the forehead.

I try to come up with opening sentences and graphs that will catch a reader’s attention. Sometimes this means putting in action, or at least suspense. Sometimes this means trying something unusual, unexpected, even strange. In my second book, I wrote of the interaction between two societies: one without technology, one with. I wanted to convey immediately the sense among those without technology that they were out of their depth. And I imagined what it would be like to know only parchment and then encounter a written message from a society like ours. My opening:

The paper itself was a message. Immaculately white, its edges were as straight as sunbeams, its corners so sharp that they seemed capable of drawing blood.

It’s a bit odd to speak of a piece of paper in those terms, but “odd” was exactly what I was going for. Another example: In one of the Forelands books, I opened in the point of view of my villain:

What did it mean to be a God? Was it simply immortality that separated the great ones from those who lived on Elined’s earth? Was it their power to bend others to their will, their ability to shape the future and remake the world as they desired? Did he not possess those powers as well? Had he not made himself a god?

In this case, I wanted his voice to be the first that my readers encountered, because he was the character who was going to drive the story throughout the book.

Which leads us to this: In composing your opening, you need to decide a few things. First, who is your point of view character for this first passage? If you only have one for the book, that’s easy. If you have several, whose is the most compelling voice? Which character is most likely to intrigue and seduce your reader? For the purposes of the story, who is the most logical choice? Sometimes this will be the lead character. Sometimes it might be a secondary character who doesn’t even survive the chapter. I often start my books with a killing. I establish a point of view character and then promptly kill him off. Why? Because murders can be intriguing and exciting. And also because this quickly establishes in my reader’s mind that no character is safe. Even a POV character can die. When I threaten a character it might not be for effect; it might be for keeps.

Second, where in the narrative do you begin your story? This probably seems like a pretty basic question, but it’s more complicated than you might think. At times I like to jump right in to the action that drives the plot. Other times I like to introduce a character, and so will place him or her in a situation that’s only tangentially related to the main story line, but that establishes certain talents or abilities he/she might have that are essential to the story. And at still other times, I like to play with time and chronology.

Third, you also have decide the setting for that first scene — not just the where (inside a castle, out on a city street, in a space ship) but also the atmospherics: night or day, sunny or stormy, raucous or quiet.

Finally, you need to make sure that the opening works with the stylistic choices you made in your planning stage. Are the voices we talked about last week still right for what you’re writing, and does your opening begin to establish them? Will you write in first person or third? Will the ambiance you create be light or dark or somewhere in between? Are you writing in the noir voice of an urban fantasy, or in a style more appropriate for high fantasy?

I’m in the process of finishing the first chapter of the first Thief Taker book. My first sentence isn’t really strange or innovative, but it does put the reader right into the first action, which is what I was after. The first few pages offer insights into my lead character — his past, his strengths and weaknesses. They also tell us where we are and when, they set the mood for much of what follows, and they introduce the magic system. By the end of that first chapter, which is only about 2500 words, my reader should be informed enough to understand where they are, and intrigued enough to start reading chapter two. And ultimately, that’s what the book’s opening should do.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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18 comments to Writing Your Book, part III: The Opening Pages

  • Great advice, David. As a ‘pantser’ the first section is hard for me because I often don’t know where the story is going when I set out. What that means, of coruse, is that at some point (when I DO know where the story is going) I have to take all those questions you raise about opening pages and apply them. The result is often a massive edit–even a new start, or a heavy cut. My beginnings are usually too slow and saturated with back story, so I have to find ways to cut that stuff, start with a bang and then work in the essential parts of what I cut later. I find this very difficult. Next time, I’ll refer back to your post 🙂

  • While I do try to plan quite a bit before I write, I find the best approach for openings to be “jump right in.” I don’t mean the opening must be a “jump right in” opening, I mean as the author, I have to just jump in, start writing, and see what develops. Like A.J., this approach means a hefty rewrite but it does help figure out what works and doesn’t for an opening. However, my latest WIP I used your method of writing short stories first. As a result, I was on a more solid footing when I began the novel and have found less problems with the opening. So, thanks!

  • “An inertial writer” I think it’s always interesting to find out how other people work. It’s comforting to know that not everyone has to shoot out 5k in one sitting to have a great story. It’s a testament to how our minds all work differently and when we use what’s best for ourselves we probably can’t go wrong.

    Thanks for sharing that piece about yourself Dave. It’s a great booster for everyone. I think knowing how one’s brain works is half the battle, when we are confident in ourselves it helps us not compare our work to others and settles the frustrations.

    Plus it’s always important, that first line… the hook… where do you start? Great advice!! Thanks again!!

  • Thanks, AJ. I think that the deeper I go into this series of posts, the more idiosyncratic my advice is bound to be, and probably the same will be true of people’s responses to my posts. Writing is a highly individualized endeavor; everyone works his or her own way. The advice I set forth here is probably far less useful to a “pantser” than to someone who works from at least a rudimentary outline. Which is not to say that one way is right and the other way isn’t. But I suppose I’m thinking that as this sequence of posts goes on, I should cast them more in terms of “this is what I do” and less in terms of “this is what you should do.” If that makes any sense…. I also believe that, for me, beginning a book is the hardest part of the writing process. Even with an outline and all the planning I try to do, I still need to rework my opening chapters pretty extensively.

    You know, Stuart, that might be the best (and most succinct) advice we could offer here: Just jump in. There comes a time when we have to stop thinking and rethinking, and planning, and outlining, etc., and just write. Yes, maybe it will lead to rewrites, but better that than not getting anything down on the page, right? And wow! You mean I offered advice and not only did someone take it, but it actually worked! I’m amazed. Someone should tell my kids…. But not me; they wouldn’t believe it coming from me…. Thanks for the comment.

    Hinny, I agree. Even if we can’t use every tidbit of advice in our own process, it is fascinating to hear how other writers approach their work. And it’s great to have the confidence to sift through all that we hear from others and be able to say “yes, that will work for me, but this might not.” Thanks for the comment. Glad you found the post helpful.

    David

  • David, I’m a Jump-In’er. And my rewrites of the opening scene can be extensive. But one thing I need for my own writing, is that POV character’s voice in the first line to even start the book. I have to hear/see/feel who he or she is.

    Each of us are so different! That’s what I love so much about this blog — seeing how we each do things and then trying some new techniques for myself. Keeps me adding to my writer’s tool box.

  • Actually you rpost made me think “wow, that’s a way batter way of staring that my meandering mess!” Maybe I’ll try it next time.

  • *your* post and *starting*

    Sorry

  • Mikaela

    I love this blog, it teach me so much :). Sometimes I jump right in, sometimes I do not. It depends on where the story starts. The first 10 pages or so, is slightly wordy and meandering, since I am searching for the characters voices, and the story’s. I have started to occasionally edit scenes, either the day after or just after I finished it. Most of the time, it is because I feel the scene is too short. Sometimes, it is a way to get back into the story.

  • Faith, I wish I could do more “Jumping In” but I find those opening graphs so hard to write that I can’t. As I’ve said before, I spend as much time on my opening paragraph as I do on the next 2000 words. I spend as much time on the first chapter of a book as I do on the next five. It’s not that I slack off with the later stuff, but rather that getting into the voice takes me so long — and that’s AFTER all the prep work I do. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t do that foundational work first. But yes, as you say, that’s part of the fascination of this site. We’re all so different in our approaches.

    And AJ, thanks. I’m flattered that you’re thinking along those lines. I was saying that I’m not sure my way of doing this is efficient enough to warrant anyone emulating it. But I’m in the middle of the opening struggles, so this isn’t the best time for me to be saying ‘Oh, yeah! Do it my way….”

  • Mikaela, your comment posted while I was in mid-response; sorry. I’m glad that you’re enjoying our posts. Your comment points out something that I often need to keep in mind. Specifically, that there is nothing wrong with extensive rewriting. I do a lot of prep work in part because my way of working has always been to write as clean a first draft as possible. Lots of other writers just get the story written and worry about polishing in rewrite, and I would like to start working that way. You’re right: rewriting is a great way to get back into the story. Thanks for reminding me that revising has benefits that go way beyond just cleaning up the mess I’ve made with my first draft.

  • Great post, David. A common conception among many writers and readers is that killing people off–or just ladling less fatal mounds of shit on them–at the beginning of a story is pointless because the reader doesn’t care enough about the character. But as a meta-narrative statement from the author that establishes certain rules of the story, such a move can be seen as a very useful technique.

    I could wish you had done more to address the advantages and disadvantages of a fast-paced opening vs. a slow one, but that’s a very tallked-through subject, so in the interest of brevity, it might be better skipped.

    I am curious about something else: Do you feel there’s a need to have some sort of tension right off the bat? Or can a more relaxed opening also be effective?

  • Thanks for the comments and questions, Atsiko. I think you’re right: A more extensive discussion of fast-paced vs. slower-paced openings could have been useful — perhaps I’ll return to this in greater detail next week, if today’s discussion and the one prompted by Faith’s upcoming post seems to warrant it. As to your question about tension, I believe that the sooner you introduce the tensions that are going to drive the plot, the better off you’re going to be, particularly in today’s market. From an aesthetic point of view it’s a more nuanced issue than that, I know. But ultimately the goal is get published, and in our genre, in today’s market, getting to it faster rather than slower makes more sense. This doesn’t mean, necessarily that the main plot line has to come into play immediately — sometimes the tension that manifests itself in that opening scene can have more to do with the tensions revolving around a main character or a central element of the worldbuilding that leads to the main narrative thread. But the tension should be there early on, I believe. That’s just my opinion, obviously. Anyone else want to weigh in?

  • I definitely spend a good bit of time getting the first couple paragraphs down. I’ve always been big into trying to grip the reader in the first 10 seconds of reading. I usually describe it as grabbing the reader by the short hairs instead of the collar, but yeah, this is one place where I’ve always tried to excel. 😉

    I think a beginning could take a more relaxed approach, but it has to at least bring in enough interest and intrigue to make the reader turn to the next page. I’ve read books that have gripped me immediately and I’ve read books that I’ve wanted to put down after the first page, which is a sad thing for the latter, because a couple of those I’ve picked back up again after some time and struggled through the first chapter or so to realize that there was actually a good story there.

    I personally feel that if a reader cracks open the book in the store to see what the first few sentences are like or takes it home just on the cover or blurb, if I’m not grabbing the attention of the reader on the first page, if they’re not compelled to keep turning pages to see what happens next in the first 10 seconds of reading, then I’m not doing my job as a storyteller.

  • Right, Daniel. Those first ten seconds are crucial, not only in the bookstore with the potential buyer, but also when an editor or agent is reading the manuscript. You have to catch their attention, be it with excitement or innovation or a gritty character — it has to be something that makes the manuscript sparkle. Great comment. Thanks.

  • Note: For those of you who do not know, hubby and I write as a team so many of my posts say we, because it is hard to separate our styles, as we have been writing together for 20 years. Hopefully some our stuff which is not scientific papers or government documents will be published in the near future.

    Oddly enough, we both find the beginning to be the easiest part of the book. I think we have the opening sequence to the first 3 or 4 books about our main character. We seem to get beginning and ending and have a harder time getting through the middle where there is more dialogue (as we write space adventure, the end is usually a battle or a physical puzzle of some kind so not as much talking).

    We too start with our main character, usually with them talking and/or doing something. A crucial point for us too is that something in the first couple of phrases has to give the reader a clue that the story is set in the future. For example, if the character is talking to someone via the phone, the text says videophone, vidphone or tri-D phone. If we were to set a story in the past (or on tech backward planet), but where they still had phones, we might give a specific old phone type like a candlestick phone.
    The difference between vidphone and phone is only 3 letters but those 3 letters can add a new dimension to the setting for the reader (and the editor).

  • Thanks for the great post, David. It’s always hepful to know how authors with a number of books behind them work at the various stages of the process.
    On the matter of tension right at the beginning, and therefore of fast or slow paced openings, I suppose that you could do without conflict relating to the main narrative if you can somehow manage to address your overall story theme – or the major theme if there are more than one, or the one your opening pdv character feels most about – in the conflict you’re having at the beginning. Either that, or foreshadowing the inner conflict your protagonist will have to face much further in the story.
    Perhaps this kind of “internalized conflict” could be useful if one doesn’t want a fast-paced opening, the slam-bang action kind. It’s probably harder to get this kind of opening right, though.
    As a reader, I know that when I read those first sentences at a bookstore I’m more interested by voice and the idea of what the story could be about. But maybe that’s just me ^_^

  • Angela, great point about setting tone and place. Yes, those three letters are huge. Middle parts are easier to me because I already have the hard stuff (again, for me) done. The voices are established, the narrative is moving along. There are bumps along the way, of course, but I prefer those middle parts. But as we’ve been saying: part of what makes this interesting is that everyone is so different in approach and process. Thanks for the comment.

    Alessia, thanks for the kind words. Obviously we want to draw readers in with that opening sequence, but the fact remains that all readers are different. They respond differently to different approaches. The best thing I can do as an author is try to find the opening the works best for me, for my vision of what the book ought to be, for the voice and pacing and character arc I want to establish. It can take a while to figure out exactly what that perfect opening ought to be (I’m struggling with that now) but I know that I’ll find it eventually. And yes, voice and theme should be a major part of what gives the opening its effectiveness.

  • Great thought on setting the setting, Angela. That’s certainly one way to draw a reader in.