Writing Advice: Story OpeningsSparkler Post
I read. A lot. (Actually, it's pretty much a given with all the Sparklers, right?) Anyways, reading plenty of books is a healthy way to improve one's writing habits. And while I can hardly claim I'm a good writer, I can make a presumptuous list about what constitutes a bad or good story opening. (Reading also benefits one's grammar and spelling. However, I still can't decide if I just spelt presumptuous correctly and I'm too lazy to bring up the dictionary right now.
Getting back on topic, here's my list, with the worst openings first and the best openings last: (Oh, and before you continue, I apologize if I blast one of your writing techniques. To each his own and all that.)
Bad stories tend to open with the following:
-With a piece of dialogue. Seriously. Any story opening with, “Hey, Lucy, get in here!” or “No, dude, weasels ALWAYS beat ferrets.” is a bit tacky. Actually, very tacky. It works in movies, but in a movie, you’ve already taken in the visual stuff. Your brain is set for whatever the movie is about and you can take a piece of dialogue. In a book you have no idea what’s going on when someone just throws out a spoken sentence. You don’t know who it is. It’s like getting a call from a stranger. 99 times out of 100 it’s just plain creepy.
-With a description that does not pertain to the story. We know the sky is blue. We know that the grass is green. We know flowers are gorgeous. Ruminating on nature and its beauty is something best left to poetry, which can capture the right spirit within four lines. Most books that describe scenes like this have an entire paragraph. Unless we are somewhere we’ve never been before, Pluto for example, keep it simple. Or, if the description actually pertains to the story. If the protagonist is in a park, sitting on a bench, waiting for it to stop raining, you can describe that park. But only a little. We all know squirrels have fluffy tails and that when it rains the sky is wet and greyish.
-With an introduction and description of character. A few children’s writers can get away with “Hi my name is Darren.” but only because they’ve got some kick-butt line that follows. Introductions are best left hidden within the later details. (This kind of explains why Moby Dick made me fall asleep: it opened with an introduction.) We don’t need to know the color of the character's hair right away, how tall he is, and whether or not he has dreamy eyes. Rick Riordan kind of gets away with being able to describe the basic physical attributes of his characters, but only because the rest of the story has amazing encounters with Greek gods and flaming chariots and a whole lot of other bomb-awesome stuff that I would endure far more than having to listen to Percy say the his girlfriend’s blond hair was in a ponytail. Heck, I might even read through the whining I’m told is in those Twilight novels if there was amazing scenes with Greek and Roman gods and pegasi and minotaurs and lots and lots of swords and crossbows and stuff.
-With an action scene. Cool car chase scenes only work in the movies. We don’t know who these people are and could end up accidentally rooting for the bad guy. Since you don’t know the characters, it’s just confusing. The only way it works is if you're good enough to slip in the important details while the action happens and still manage to keep it exciting.
-One of those lame teasers. You know, “Oh, if I hadn’t gone to the milkshake farm, none of this would ever have happened.” or “My family always said I would get into trouble, but I didn’t listen.” That’s like telling the reader half of the story, but then dragging the rest of the story out for 234 pages. I mean, if you could sum up most of the story in one teaser of a line, you need to write brief book reviews, not actual books.
Awesome stories tend to open with
-“It was a dark and stormy night.” Best. Line. Ever. If you can open a story up with this, and actually pertain the story to the storm, you will become famous. Madeleine L’Engle did, and I know she wasn’t the creator of the line.
-Something short and taut. It can’t convey too much information, and it can’t lead into an immediate action scene, but it hooks the reader in without being lame. And it can’t sound contrived. It’s just got to be something so natural and cool and tight. Like, “I went to my cupboard. It was bare.” or “The sheep were gone, so I tried not to cry.” Tell me those nursery rhyme remix lines weren't awesome. ("Ninjas, those nursery rhyme remix lines sucked." "Okay, I was asking for it.")
-A great one-liner that will become famous forever. This is a tall-order, and I think that every writer really really REALLY wants to become someone who writes, “It is a universally acknowledged truth that a single man in possession of a large fortune is in need of a good wife.” I mean, just read that and you are going, “SHAMAZING!” How could you not want to write a one-liner like that?
-A brief overview to set the mood. I mean, what can beat, “I was outside, listening to music on my iPod, when a jogger came up to me and asked if I’d seen his jetpack.” Scene? Set. Characters? Set. Dialogue? Set. Conflict? Set. How can you possibly go wrong? Besides making the jogger turn out to be a sparkly stalker guy who is a cyborg caveman that falls in love with the person listening to the iPod.
-For action/adventure/sci-fi/fantasy novels, something of a dramatic line must begin the book, such as “The wind blew into my face as I trudged through the mountains, looking for yeti.” or “Sarah looked suspiciously at her moon-pie. Knowing her family, it was poisoned” or my personal favorite: “The weasels crouched, pitchforks at the ready, waiting for some innocent squirrel to come forward.” This is a fine line to walk, because it can turn into an action scene, which is bad, but if you keep a little tension, with a bit of adventure, it’s tight and bomb diggity and all that stuff.
So there you go, a little bit of my sarcastic writing advice that no one in their right mind should really take seriously. But it was a great way to practice my writing. Right? Right? Oh well. Laters!
We're all extremely sure that Ninjas is crazy and we're not just saying that because she's suddenly using italics and talking in third person plural as though she's an omnipotent Sparkitor.
Originally published on January 2, 2013.