In my days working as an editor and judge for NYC Midnight, Strange Horizons, Nightlight Horror Podcast, and other places, I’ve come to notice a common pattern in faulty writing. It’s something that means instant rejection for certain stories and leaves a bad taste in my mouth while reading it.
That’s slow or vacant openings where the writer spends time setting the stage or showing off their use of language before actually getting to the story.
Below I’m going to get into these types of openings and ways to fix them and make openings that will really grab your readers and editors. There is also a challenge for people who want to take their learning a little bit further.
I believe, and can tell, that for some writers these types of openings are a personal flare or touch they believe makes their story or writing stand out, but really all it does is meander around the point of why the reader is there. They are there for a story; one told expertly.
Other writers do this because they are giving slight nods to the reader for things that are going to be important later or are important in a way that the reader never learns. When it comes to layering in secrets or hidden things in the beginning of a story, you have to do it in a way where you give an answer to something so that the reader trusts that you will eventually explain everything because you are an expert writer who knows their story and craft like the lining of your favorite bag of chips.
Mary Robinette Kowal explains openings expertly in her guest lecture in Brandon Sanderson’s writing series. Give your openings everything the reader is going to need to know about the story as fast as possible. That’ll make them want to keep going, reading faster and faster to find out the next clue, hint, or image into your world.
It’s best to make sure that they have character, world/setting, and problem/crisis that the character is going to face within the first page.
If you can fit it into the first line, you are a pro and people would literally kill for your skills.
This is also how you build that much needed trust between yourself and the reader. It is that trust that will not only keep them reading your story, but will make them come back to you for more stories because they’ll trust that you won’t waste their time.
Because at this point in publishing, it’s not about the money, it’s about the time. People will drop loads of cash on something if it is of value to them—money is nothing; time is everything.
As a writer, you need to keep this in mind. Every second someone spends reading your words is another moment they aren’t liking, sharing, scrolling, walking, talking, or doing literally anything else.
Make each moment and word count in your openings and throughout your story.
Sometimes maybe it’s not that you don’t know this, but that maybe you’re lost on what is the most important thing or things to show at the beginning of your story that will really catch readers. For instance, I hear a lot of writers say that their settings or world are really interesting, and they want their readers to experience that first, but they aren’t sure how to blend their story actions and character with setting descriptions.
If you’ve ever heard of the writing advice, make your sentences do more, this is what they mean. Making your sentences do more is the only way to avoid exposition dumps early in your story that will lose readers.
Let’s say you’ve got yourself a main setting that is a house. Most of the action and scenes between characters will take place in this house, so you want it to be significant to both character and reader. Instead of opening with plain and cut-out descriptions of what the house looks like, utilize metaphor and subtext to make the windows become something more.
Don’t just use any old metaphor either. Come up with something that is story and character unique. If by chance the main character is recovering from a drowning incident that took place at the house and they are trying to avoid talking about, have them describe the windows of the house as ‘frozen pools’ or ‘oceans of glass’. Something that blends their feelings with the event.
You can also utilize blind spots or avoidance in description that can cause a sort of tension. Have the character be describing the house, but avoiding mentioning the pool or lake in which the drowning took place. In both techniques use descriptive and on-brand words. If this is a story with themes of safety and family involved, evoke those feelings by using words similarly related to that.
For example, instead of the windows being ‘frozen pools’, they are ‘comforting shields’ or ‘large plates in which to see the world’.
These aren’t perfect examples, but I hope you can see my point.
Here’s an example from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Using the technique listed above and making sure to introduce your character, world, and problem/crisis within the first page will enhance your openings. This in turn leads to more sales, acceptances, and readers.
Please, if you have any questions about openings or writing, leave a comment and let’s talk about it. Subscribe for more tips, tricks, and writerly brilliance.
For those who want to challenge themselves, share the first sentence from your current project in the comments along with a rewritten version that includes all the techniques and tricks listed above. I want to see intriguing and engaging openings.