Finding Your Writers Voice turned its attention this week to how to start your stories. What’s the best way to draw your readers into your tale? Of course, it’s not only leisure readers we’re trying to lure in here, it’s also editors whose day is filled with opening lines. Your opportunity to impress is short so you better make the most of it!
This week was a little different in that we asked writers of the community to bring either some of their own work to share or an opening paragraph from a book they really like. Suffice to say that we didn’t get through many of the articles lined up as the evening was mostly filled with writers reading their own work or reading from a piece of work they admire. We’ll start with sharing the article we partially covered and then move on to some of the discussion around feedback.
The first article (and only article) was from Reedsy and is titled, ‘How to Start a Story: 11 Tips from Top Editors‘. We started by looking at the first four tips and then unfortunately time ran out before we could come back to the remaining seven! Although I lamented that we hadn’t time to cover the full article one of the writers commented that it’s a good sign when the content is not fully covered, the discussion took over!
The first four tips were:
- Start with the Unexpected – one of the examples given was Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell, “It was a cold bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” What a great opening line! It immediately casues you to pause and think, that’s not right, clocks don’t strike thirteen. You can read the rest of the opening paragraph here.
- Start with an Image – the point being made here was that one of the most effective ways to avoid exposition at the start of your story is to begin to leverage the readers imagaination and start building an image in their heads. It goes onto to suggest that the use of sensory details can enhance the connection with the readerm without the reader knowing the full context or background, of where they are or why.
- The example given was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the opening lines are, ” It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with the great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood punded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history“.
- A powerful opening paragraph without doubt but the question posed by the group was who was talking? Was it the narratar or the character? Is it clear? If the narrator and the character complement each other and work together the reader should have no problems but if they don’t work together then the story is likely to be confusing. An obvious claim perhaps but worth calling out.
- Another point on this was if the narrator came across as preachy then it can turn the reader off. A good excercise to try here is a point of view writing excercise to see what the different views could look like.
- Start with Action – Opening your story ‘In Medias Res‘, in the middle of your story, can be an effective approach to grabbing your reader’s attention quickly.
- The exmple given was the opening lines of Lord of the Flies, “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead.“.
- The point was made that there is not a lot of action going on here and there isn’t but the reader is landed into the middle of the story. The boys are on the island, how they got there would be answered later.
- Start with Brevity – the final tip that we got to cover on the night and an excellent example called out to illustrate this.
- “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. Short and sweet but pulls you in!
As we broke off from the article the first example of an impressive opening was actually from a poem. Invictus by William Ernest Henley.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
A powerful opening, ‘my unconquerable soul’ such beautiful language and imagery.
We then moved on to the opening paragraph in Moneyball by Michael Lewis
“THE FIRST THING they always did was run you. When big league scouts ¬road-¬tested a group of elite amateur prospects, foot speed was the first item they checked off their lists. The scouts actually carried around checklists. “Tools” is what they called the talents they were checking for in a kid. There were five tools: the abilities to run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power. A guy who could run had “wheels”; a guy with a strong arm had “a hose.” Scouts spoke the language of auto mechanics. You could be forgiven, if you listened to them, for thinking they were discussing sports cars and not young men.“
The discussion on this opening focused on how authentic it was. The writer had done his research and knew the language of the game and how it worked. There was no pretense to understand the game from the outside looking in. He had absorbed himself in the DNA of the game and the story that unfolded showed. It was easy for the genuine baseball fan to be pulled in and also for non-baseball fans. In comparison, it was recommended to not watch ‘Summer Catch’, a very poor attempt at portraying the game of baseball!
The next writer transported us to a completely different genre! We were now in the realm of NeverNight by Jay Kristoff. Be prepared, these opening lines are not for the faint-hearted!
“People often shit themselves when they die. There muscles slack and their sold flutter free and everything else just … slips out. For all their audiences love of death, the playwrights seldome mention it. When our hero breathes his last in his heroine’s arms, they call no attention to the stain leaking across his tights, or how the stink makes her eyes water as she leans in for her farewell kiss”
That opening will either pull you in eager for more or push you far far away!
A question was asked about maintaining the quality of an opening and can the writers keep it going through the story? The influence of editors was mentioned in terms of either enhancing the opening or diluting the main story. The question lay unanswered I feel, ‘How much does an editor impact on the opening paragraph?’
Various writers then went on to share with us their own work. Perhaps, in time, some of these writers will share their work on this platform, but for now, without permission, I can’t share anything.
One line that did capture my attention in terms of the opening was, ‘a paragraph can be thought of as one thought’.
The book ‘No Mercy’ by Martina Cole came in for some critique and not all positive. I haven’t read the book so can’t comment personally.
A new word for me on the night was, ‘Sherlockian’, relating to or characteristic of Sherlock Holmes, especially in showing great perceptiveness.
Joe Abercrombie – The Blade Itself was also called out as a good example of a strong opening.
Some of the great books that I had intended to read from and share their opening paragraphs, but alas time was our enemy once again, were:
- Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
- Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
- The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde
All well perhaps next time 🙂