‘My life began the day I shot my psychiatrist and started an illicit relationship with the bishop’s tortoise.’
Are you still with me? Of course, you are. A story that opens with an intriguing mystery (let's call it the Tortoise Trick), is a story that gets read. And we don’t have a second chance. The first paragraph is the advertisement for our story.
Imagine if an advertiser started with his name, the dimensions of his factory and the biography of his parents. Would we buy his product? Hm…
A lot of stories are like that. The writer ‘eases us in’ with a long slab of scene setting or character description. Meanwhile, where’s the story? The reason to read on? I defy anyone not to read this story. It opens with the Tortoise Trick:
‘During his years with the Mongolian police Inspector Dorj had witnessed crimes in sufficient variety to inspire several Shakespearian tragedies but, until the crowbar-wielding midget sent the locked door of the circus caravan flying open, the inspector had never seen a man murdered by a corpse.’ Locked In Death, Mary Reed & Eric MayerUnhappily, the story doesn’t live up to its promise but we don’t discover that until page five. The Tortoise has worked its magic. Silly or not, it has done its job.
Here are three tested ways, less silly than a tortoise, to open a story with élan - and persuade your reader to read on:
1. Drop in a time bomb.
Every good story or novel hinges upon one key incident. Maybe our character chances upon buried Nazi gold or Jane discovers her husband is unfaithful or a child witnesses something she was not supposed to see. Without that incident there’s no story.
Imply it in the first chapter or, in a short story, the very first scene. Otherwise, what’s the story all about? Why should the reader read it?
‘Raoul was a strong man, made wiry by forty years in the mountains. Still, he sweated as he dragged the boxes into the cave. Night had fallen by the time he had buried them in debris and swept away his footprints. The cave would keep its secrets, he thought. Provided others did. His face grew grim.Now the fuse has been lit. Will the cave ‘keep its secrets’? Will someone reveal them? The opener has shaped, suspensefully, the story to come.
2. Introduce an emotional conflict quickly.
A story grips us when it stirs us emotionally and also contains uncertainty from the outset. Suspense means ‘uncertainty’ (literally, ‘hanging between two places’). Get that suspense into the first fifty words.
‘Joe had never been late for dinner before. Storm or blizzard, you could set your watch by him. 6pm. The table set, the ketchup bottles all in place, and Joe saying grace. Now it was 7.10pm. She stared at an empty chair and waited for the phone to ring.’Something has happened to Joe. What? We’ve also learned a little about Joe’s character, obliquely. No need to tell us he’s a Christian gentleman, stolid, with old-time virtues. We can infer it.
3. Enchant the reader.
If your story rests not on a mystery or dramatic conflict but on, say, the delicate interplay of relationships between characters it must still enchant the reader from paragraph one.
‘You cannot have a murder without a body, can you? No. Or so I had always thought, being a coroner. But what do coroners know about the many ways of dying? They know only of bodies. Dying is a separate art.’That opener was written by one of my students. It’s poetic but engaging. The reader concludes ‘this author can write!’ And they read on.
The one big mistake that writers make with openers.
Perhaps the greatest error that new writers make is to bury a potentially good opener deep, deep in the story. In an analysis of more than 5000 stories submitted to the Writers’ Village short fiction contest across five years, 38% lost points because the opener arrived too late.
‘What did you do with the body after you removed the hands?’That intriguing line, adapted from an actual entry, summed up the entire plot. But it occurred only on page six after a turgid preamble.
What a great opener it might have made! The story could then have flashed back to the discovery of the body, the police chase and the arrest of the killer. And the close might have repeated that first chilling question to round off the story in a satisfying way.
Often the simplest way to improve a story is to find the most dramatic line or passage you’ve already written, wrench it out of the narrative sequence and put it at the start. Then link it back to the ensuing scenes. One simple way to link two scenes is to echo some key theme or phrase.
Remember our previous example? It started: ‘Dying is a separate art.' It went on:
'But it was not of bodies I was thinking that bright spring morning in March 1598, merely my breakfast. I had just started upon it when I was startled by a loud knock at the door of my apothecary shop. [Etc]’The first passage is a prelude to the story, a reflection. Its significance does not become apparent for several pages. But the word ‘dying’ links it to the next passage (‘bodies’). The transition is seamless.
Unless you have a strong opener, an ‘ad’ for your story, nobody will discover your product. Grip us in the first few words and maybe we’ll buy it!
What sort of opener entices you to read on? Please leave a comment and tell us about the arresting openers you’ve found - or created - and why they worked for you! .
Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft