For me, finding the perfect first sentence and opening scene for a novel is actually the hardest part of writing. It doesn’t get easier no matter how many novels I’ve sold or how many editors I’ve worked with (at least not so far). And it’s a topic I constantly come back to in posts for both AdventuresInYAPublishing.com and the1st5PagesWritingWorkshop.com, probably because I keep hoping to find a magic formula that will make it easier. (Tip: There are no magic formulas for anything writing-related, unfortunately. : ))
Because a lot of people struggle with this topic, Sandra Held, Sarah Glenn Marsh, and I have asked the finalists in our recent Red Light, Green Light WIP contest at Adventures which was all about the opening and the pitch to share some thoughts on finding the strongest place to start.
Interested in test-driving the opening and pitch for your own WIP? The next agent-judged Red Light, Green Light contest opens for entries on 4/7/16.
Four Writing Contest Finalists Share Their Tips for Crafting a Great Beginning
Joan Albright: To me, a great first line must do 2 things - invoke a visual, and leave me with a question. Here are some of mine:
"Let it burn!" - Pegasus Chained
"Eva took out her frustration on Mateo’s white shirt, attacking wrinkles with her iron as if they had done her a personal affront." - Quetzalcoatl
"Silas clung to his tiny chainskiff, arms wrapped around the rail while it rocked and pitched and finally settled against the chain that held it in the sky." - The Bottomless Sky
And the opening line from my all-time favorite book:
"The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened." - The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
There are other good ones, of course. I love the simplicity in the Animorphs' "My name is Jake," and Watership Down's "The primroses were over." But lacking something snappy, that really sets the tone for the story in one line, a visual with a question is always a safe fallback point. Even better if you can work in all three!
Laurine Bruder: Hoo boy, this is a tough one, especially since I've changed my beginning sentence a lot since the contest. But what I try to focus on the most is putting the character into a situation and you learn something about them through how they handle it. For example, Ivy was in a prison wagon. This doesn't seem like a scenario where someone can do anything, can they? But she's doing something. She's thinking. Not just thinking, but her mind is ticking, like a clock. This implies that Ivy is focused, she's logical, almost mechanic, and approaches her problems through planning rather than action. But it also begs the question: what is she thinking? Is she thinking of escape or how she landed there or how uncomfortable she is in a tiny box on wheels? One sentence is already doing so much and the next one has to do even more because the writer has to build on what he/she began with the first. First lines are tough, and sometimes you have to go through hundreds or more but eventually you'll find the right one.
Holly Campbell: Begin as far into the story as you can get away with. My personal strategy is to dive right in to the character's world. The opening is an invitation: "Let me tell you a story." If you spend too much time getting to the point, the reader may lose interest. I try to make an instant connection with the character, the setting, or the story in that first sentence.
Lana Pattinson: The beginning of your story is the most important thing you can work on. Period. I think I’m on version #4 at the moment…and I might change it yet again.
My advice? When you’re starting out, just put something on the page. You gotta start somewhere, and you can always edit it later. No…you WILL edit it later. Again and again.
When you’ve got a full outline or a partial ready, take a step back and ask…is this the best beginning I could have? Come up with 3 other ideas of how to start the story. You’ll be surprised at how your brain creates more exciting intros.
Sometimes I think you don’t really know your story until you’ve finished writing it. Then you go back to the beginning and insert specificity, foreshadowing, and meaning into each sentence. Every piece of dialogue needs to be written from the character’s world view. Write out all the world building and the backstory you think you need for the intro, and then copy it onto on a fresh document. Only put 25% of it back in.
I entered a contest where you sent in your first & last chapters, and synopsis. That was pretty eye opening for me. I could see where the first & last chapters mirrored each other, and where they didn’t, and that helped me to reshape the story more cohesively. Specifically, I could see where they mirrored each other in mood/tone and setting (or didn’t); and how to track the character growth/what they overcame throughout the story. And I made improvements in both because of that side-by-side comparison.
Top tip: Read Hooked by Les Edgerton. It’s like a play-by-play for your first five pages and will certainly help you win the Red Light / Green Light contest next time around!
Martina Boone (author of Compulsion, Persuasion, and upcoming Illusion) was born in Prague and spoke several languages before learning English. Her first teacher in the U.S. made fun of her for not pronouncing the "wh" sound right, so she set out to master "all the words”—she's still working on that! In the meantime she’s writing contemporary fantasy set in the kinds of magical places she'd love to visit.
What do you guys think? Do you have any opening pages tips?
Struggle to come up w/ the right opening? Check out these tips from 4 contest finalists. #writetip (Click to tweet)