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What draws you into a story? How to create a great opening #amwriting

It’s March 2020, and time for one of our authors’ Round Robins. When author Rhobin Courtright set this topic a few weeks ago, we didn’t know then that we’d be plunged now into the middle of a pandemic such as the world hasn’t seen. The world is suddenly a very different place.

round robin, helena fairfax, freelance editor

Human beings carry on; we are resourceful and we’ve always created. People in quarantine or isolated may be thinking of taking the time to paint, or sew, or write the novel they’ve always dreamed of writing, and stories have been part of our culture for thousands of years.

In Diane Drake’s excellent book Get Your Story Straight, she says, ‘Remember, stories teach us that what matters most is not what happens to us, but what we do about it.’

If you’re thinking of spending the next few months writing the novel you’ve always planned and don’t know where to start, this month’s topic might be of interest.

How do you create a great opening? And what draws you into a story?

Most people who write or who have studied writing will have heard of the inciting incidentThe Helena Fairfax, freelance editorinciting incident is the thing that happens at the start of a story that changes the hero or heroine’s life forever. Quite often the incident happens as the main character is going about their ordinary life.

Here are some inciting incidents from some of my favourite stories:

In Pride and Prejudice, Charles Bingley rents Netherfield Park in the village of Longourne. His arrival with Darcy changes Lizzie Bennett’s life forever.

In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oliver is born in a grubby workhouse, like thousands of other children of the time. His mother a ‘good-looking girl’ who wears no wedding ring, dies shortly afterwards, and Oliver is plunged into the life of an orphan.

They don’t all have to be examples from the classics. A romance writer I love is Barbara Hannay. In her book A Parisian Proposition, Jonathan Rivers is going about his ordinary day, checking his herd of Angus steers, when a city journalist arrives, wanting to write about cattle station life. Her arrival changes his life – or his love life :) – forever.

You’ll get the picture, but there are more examples of famous inciting incidents here.

helena fairfax, freelance editor
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Writing tip: if you’re creating your own opening scene, it’s tempting to start with something exciting to hook the reader – a bank robbery, a fight between hero and heroine, etc – but if your exciting opening has nothing to do with the rest of the story, readers will end up feeling let down. The opening should be something that has a dramatic effect on the main character – even if, at the time, it doesn’t seem important.

Making the reader care

What draws me, personally, into a story is something that makes me care. And people care about other people. It’s human nature to be curious about other people’s lives, and it’s human nature for almost all of us to care what happens to other people.

There is no need for a dramatic opening to hook readers. The best opening hooks (for me, at least) have at least one interesting character who I want to find out more about.

I start to care what impact Charles Bingley’s arrival is going to have on the Bennett family because Mrs Bennett is so anxious that Mr Bennett makes contact with him. ‘The business of her life was to get her five daughters married’. Mr Bennett tells her ‘they are silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something about her’. Now I’m intrigued to find out more. What does Lizzy have about her that the others don’t? Will Mr Bennett contact Bingley? Will Bingley marry one of the girls? Will it be Lizzy?

Helena Fairfax, freelance editor

Charles Dickens is a master at engaging readers right from the start, and Oliver Twist has all the drama and human emotion you could want in a story. What will happen to this poor baby, born in squalor and orphaned? Who is the mysterious mother?

Making a start

There is plenty of advice online and in books about creating the perfect opening scene. If you’re looking for more, I liked this article, for example. But one piece of advice I wish I’d know when i first started writing is don’t get overly concerned about it.

It’s all too easy to sit in front of that first page, writing and deleting and tweaking, trying to get that all-important first line and opening scene right. Best thing you can do, though, is get it down and move on. Inevitably you will want to change it later. You can write the whole novel and then go back and change it, but if you don’t get something down and carry on writing, the novel will never get written at all.

Example opening

Here’s the opening scene to my novel, The Summer of Love and Secrets (A Way from Heart to Heart in the US/Can)

helena fairfax, freelance editor, authorThe day Stuart died, everything started out in the usual way. Kate gave George his breakfast and strapped him into the car for the trip to nursery. She never turned the radio on when Stuart was away. If she didn’t listen to the news, nothing bad would happen. In any case, she and George had their own routine and some particular songs they loved. That morning he clapped and sang, and Kate joined in, and together they belted out ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ at the tops of their voices, all the way to nursery.

Later Kate would wonder how it was she could go about her morning so cheerfully and Stuart be dead. But the sun was shining in a cloudless sky, and everyone was going about their usual business. So when she got home she did all the normal things, like tidying away the breakfast dishes and putting on some washing. There was a t-shirt of Stuart’s still lying at the bottom of the laundry basket. She held the soft cotton fabric to her face and breathed in the smell of him, but the warmth of his body had gone, and it wasn’t the same. She put the t-shirt in with George’s things, closed the door of the machine and set the programme. All trace of Stuart was washed away. Kate would wish with all her heart that she’d kept this small link to his living, vital presence in the weeks to come, but early that morning the laundry was just another chore to finish before she started work.’

*

I always try to make my heroines engaging characters from the start, and people readers can hopefully relate to.

I didn’t make a conscious effort here to ‘fit the rules’, but in retrospect the opening has what the textbooks often say it should have. The heroine is going about her daily business, when something happens that changes her life forever.

*

What are your favourite openings of all time, whether book or film? If you have any comments, I’d love to hear from you!

And if you’d like to know what the other authors in our Round Robin are saying on this topic, please click on one of the links below.

Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1RR
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com

23 thoughts on “What draws you into a story? How to create a great opening #amwriting

  1. In response to your opening, yes, I’m feeling fenced in here at my house. May all of this soon pass without a great toll than has been already taken.
    Enjoyed your excerpt, and hadn’t thought about the ‘situation’ but I believe you are right.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great thoughtful post, Helena. My writers’ club in Edinburgh had a talk on the novel opening by Hugh Scott, whose Why Weeps the Brogan, won the 1989 Whitbread prize for older children’s literature. I’ve never forgotten his dramatic reading of its opening para and it remains my aspiration.to achieve something half as arresting. If you look at the cover of Walker books original edition, it’ll give you a clue. He achieved terror and misinformation in equal measure. anne (not in Japan as hoped, sigh!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never read Why Weeps the Brogan, Anne. It’s gone straight onto my list of books to read.
      I’m very sorry your trip to Japan has had to be called off. I’m looking forward to the day when we can all go travelling again and mingle with our loved ones. At least we can escape in books.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You have offered wise advice to not dwell on writing the perfect opening before you write the rest of your story. In my experience, by the end of the book, the opening and the entire chapter one will change. A Way from Heart to Heart is one of my favorite books. Enjoyed your samples of openings too. Thank you.
    JQ Rose

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like your advice about not dwelling on the beginning too much. In fact, I often tell the teens that I advise to “barf it out quickly, clean it up later.” Why? Because you have to get the story out of your own head, to have something to work with. Cleaning it up is editing, and that’s actually the easy part. But getting the story out is hard work. Don’t second guess yourself by stopping to self-edit. Write it down quickly, and you can revise it over and over again, afterward.

    Like

    1. I love your advice, Fiona! It’s great advice, and I only wish I followed it myself. I’m a terrible procrastinator and tinkerer, no matter how often I urge myself to just get on with it!
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment.

      Like

  5. Thank you for writing this blog. Your references were really helpful and clear and the advice about not dwelling in the beginning was crucial for me to focus on as that’s where I end up investing a lot of my time in the beginning of all that I’ve written so far and I know that’s the space I need to stop being worried about so much, at least until the stories haven’t taken a proper shape.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comment, Kritika. I’m so glad the post was helpful. You’re so right about waiting till the stories have taken their proper shape before worrying too much about the perfect opening. Best wishes with your writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. From experience, a potential publisher (NOT Chaplin Books) disliked one of my painstakingly wrought starts for THE LEGEND OF JOHN MACNAB and I later noticed an author he did take on started off with his hero being pushed out of a window or something. I learnt to dive into the story, sometimes quite violently, and to drag the reader along with me.

    In my latest possible novel, the anti-hero starts off throwing a hapless victim out of an eighth-floor window, breaking someone else’s ribs and meeting his girlfriend-to-be after being given orders (countermanded at the last moment) to shoot her in the head while she’s drinking Budweiser in her greenhouse…

    It’s a sweet, tender love story. Really.

    Amazingly, my publisher loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That certainly seems an arresting opening, James! In the book I’m reading at the moment, a woman is on her way to an important meeting in New York. She’s waiting to cross the road when someone walks straight out under a truck and is crushed. This happens in the first couple of paragraphs. It certainly got me hooked, but I am waiting to see if this arresting opening bears any relation to the rest of the book. So far, it does, and I am still hooked – and it looks very much like it’s going to be a great love story!
    Glad your publisher liked your opening!

    Like

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