Friday, March 12, 2010

Hard Start - Openings in Novel Writing

A Most Important Aspect of the Novel: Opening Pages ^ Establishing Shots
                           by Robert W. Walker

The following advice comes from my How-To book entitled DEAD ON WRITING.

Writing is like shouting in the dark at stars too far to hear; like shooting in the dark at targets we don't always see, and once in a while we get lucky and hear a report back. We've hit our target. When first starting out, we do it not knowing enough about the tools at hand, or if we are holding our mouth right, or if the weapons we wield are loaded or sharpened. That is until we begin to practice and hit our stride, and soon writing, like firing off shot after shot, comes progressively easier on everyone, including the innocent bystanders we call readers-nice people who we don’t want to send screaming away from us for all our unintended results.


This is about making the right opening moves in your story…no matter what setting you open with. First lines and first paragraphs which establish character and much more are absolutely crucial. True whether you begin with the weather or a cobra about to strike.

When you open a story, you really have to rework it and rewrite it so that those opening moments are pure gold…as pure as you can make them. Clear as you can make them as well as exciting as you can make them (excitement does not necessarily mean fireworks or car chases). Think of every good film that has SET the stage in the very first seconds and minutes of the film. These first shots establish time and place along with tension and character. Perhaps you might have a page or two to interest the reader in a character or the actions being taken by a character, but this can’t possibly happen if your story opens in a miasma of confusion in which we know nothing whatsoever of the setting, the time, the character, perhaps his or her occupation, where his or her hands are at the moment, what action(s) the character(s) are currently occupied with…what pie they have their hands in. HANDS are so important to characters; about as important as LEGS and FEET.

To become proficient at opening successive chapters beyond Chapter One, too, you’ve got to establish the basic Five W’s of Who, What, Where, When, and How or at least four of the above. With each new scene this job’s got to happen. All this has to be repeated over again with each geographical shift, point of view shift, time shift. Such shifts have to be carefully “glued” together by comforting road signs as with a time word or two such as since, before, then, now, when…

To become proficient at openings, read the back jacket copy of every paperback you can get your hands on, and tell me how many of these “interest” grabbers appear in paragraph one or two: Time period, setting with place names, character’s names (names have resonance), occupation of main character, chief tension or problem (the how and why that keeps us turning pages).

Take a lesson from the back-flap writers. In fact, become adept at writing your own “flap” to place in your query letter and synopsis. They say never judge a book by its cover, but when the flap is well written, go ahead—judge a book by its synopsis. Learn to write the most important short story you will ever need to write—the story of your story in its most elemental form, my dear Watson.

You can also use this in pitch sessions—the back-flap you write for your own book! You may want to begin with the word WHEN—as in:

Just when Inspector Alastair Ransom had cut off the head of one snake slithering about the gas-lit streets of Chicago in 1893, a second fiend raises his ugly head to mar the prosperity of the city and the success of the World’s Fair.

In one fell swoop, one sentence, you get the name and profession of the main character, the time period and the location and a teasing tension. Write the copy you’d like to see on the back of your book!

An opening line and paragraph and page ought to engage the reader and excite his interest, of course, but it also ought to plant the reader’s feet firmly in place, square into the moment, square into the story. But no beginning is of any use no matter how spectacular if the story fails to move forward and a plot or at least a series of engaging episodic events do not occur. A plot must become evident and fairly soon. To this end, a good faith attempt at writing a rip-snorting ghost story or mystery or at least a men’s adventure yarn is a great and wonderful tool for a writer to learn the craft of plotting.

I hope you will leave a question or comment and Write to Sell --
rob walker, Dead On Writing, Amazon Kindle or in paper at


Morgan Mandel said...

I was getting Forever Young ready for a critique yesterday when I discovered my hook stank. I threw out a few paragraphs and then it seemed to come to life.

It does take editing to get to the right place.

Morgan Mandel

Rob Walker said...

thanks Morgan - till next time.