The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings

Author:
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

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

WD-PersonalEssay-2020-WinnerGraphic

Suspended: Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards Winner

Congratulations to J.E. Stamper, grand prize winner of the Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards. Here's his winning essay, "Suspended."

Planting Clues: Red Herrings That Fool but Don't Frustrate Your Readers

Planting Clues: Red Herrings That Fool but Don't Frustrate Your Readers

Want to know how to keep your readers engaged and entertained with your mystery novel? Let these six tips from thriller author Kris Calvin guide you!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 15

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a blank story poem.

Kristin Beck: On Writing Quickly and Publishing Slowly

Kristin Beck: On Writing Quickly and Publishing Slowly

Debut novelist Kristin Beck shares what it was like to write her historical fiction novel Courage, My Love and why she was so thankful for a slow publishing process.

Whitney Hill Elemental

Whitney Hill: Self-Published E-Book Awards Winner

Whitney Hill, winner of the 8th Annual WD Self-Published E-Book Awards, talks fan fiction, creating her own stories, and why she chose to self-publish.

8 Tips to Build Your Supportive Writing Network

8 Tips to Build Your Supportive Writing Network

Writing can be a solitary activity ... but it doesn't have to be. Let author Gale Massey give you some tips for building a supportive writing network.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 14

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a "from where you're sitting" poem.

Tension in Poetry: The Hidden Art of Line-Writing

Tension in Poetry: The Hidden Art of Line-Writing

Writer and editor Matthew Daddona explains how to easily create tension in your poems and how that adds weight to your message.