The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings

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Following up on
yesterday's post (No. 1 Challenge of Memoirs), I'd now like to address
the biggest dilemma and balancing act for all storytellers: starting
with an action-oriented scene.

It's probably the most over-repeated and cliche advice—so much so that writers have come to hate hearing it: Start with action.

I've
critiqued hundreds, maybe thousands, of first pages, and this advice is
most to blame for story beginnings that leave the reader in a quivering
mass of Why-the-Hell-Do-I-Care-About-This?

Here's why:

The action ought to have context—and be as grounded as possible in a character that we're already starting to love.

If your opening scene has weak (or no) characterization, but tons of action, this may create a scene that:

  • Lacks personality, voice, or viewpoint
  • Delivers a stereotypical crisis moment that's full of action or pain, but without a center
  • Offers an action scene for the sake of excitement, but without any real connection to the real plot, conflict, or story arc

The story beginnings that I find most compelling offer the following:

  • A character I feel I immediately know and understand
  • A situation that presents a tension, e.g., a character who's not getting what he wants or meets opposition
  • An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters

Here's a sample of an opening paragraph that does these things:

When
she stepped from the Cessna my first thought was that a man can't help
but fantasize about a woman like that even if he doesn't much like her.
My second thought was that she didn't look the type to venture into the
mountains of Idaho where the nearest road is more than thirty miles
away and phone service probably twice that. She wore a turquoise
blouse, charcoal skirt, and three-inch heels; not the kind of outfit
I'd recommend for hiking and riding.

Think about some of your favorite openings in books you've read. Study them. Here are three of mine:

On Love by Alain de Botton

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Looking for more instruction on story openings?

Photo credit: McBeth