Start with a Promise
by mariaschneider on August 25, 2009:

By Jessica Page Morrell

Story openings are like job interviews, and if the words on the page entertain, you get the job. If they don’t, somebody who writes better gets the job.

The best openings of a story, novel, or memoir are contagious—they make the reader yearn for more because you chose the best words at the best moment to launch the events that follow while raising questions that demand answers. After all, you’re writing for an editor, a highly discerning reader. Editors are word people. They are connoisseurs who love the written word and appreciate delicate language, carefully crafted sentences, and refinement.

Along with a knack for crafting beautiful language, your first paragraphs need to set the tone for the story to come. Especially in these days of blogging, dashed-off e-mails, and self-publishing, it’s important to strive for perfection. As in strutting-the-red-carpet-at-the-Academy-Awards first impression. And your opening needs to have the impact of a starlet draped in a strapless gown and diamonds or a debonair actor in a crisp and oh-so-sexy tux. It needs to dazzle and assure the reader that you can handle what follows. It needs to make a promise about the kind of story that follows.

Promises, Promises

So your opening words contain a promise to your reader: Read these pages, and I’ll transport you to a world based on your expectations, where the story events deliver an emotionally satisfying experience. And the unfolding events in your novel must be appropriate for the genre or type of story that you’re writing.

This works for memoir, also. When a reader opens the first page of a memoir, he wants to read the truth about the author’s dramatic experiences. Your opening promises that the true events of a life are fascinating and possibly horrifying.

Now, your story might be a bare-assed exposé of squalor and debauchery with your skinny-necked stepfather starring as the true-life villain. Or it might be a luminous and uplifting tale of endurance, or a life story that lies somewhere in between. No matter your approach, your first words telegraph that this story will make a reader laugh, cry, and ponder truths about the human experience.

On the other hand, when a reader opens a novel, he’s signing up for a pack of lies. You, the writer, are the liar and your reader is the sucker who is going to buy all these lies, hook, line, and sinker, as the old saying goes. It’s part of the contract that you and the reader are agreeing to. Your opening promises that you are going to tell the sort of lies that the reader specifically wants to hear. This logic is fairly simple because each genre has a built-in audience and your opening winks a come-on at that audience like a saloon girl in the Old West.

If a reader plunks down $24.95 for a fantasy or science fiction novel, he expects fantastical elements and interesting explorations of themes that perhaps cannot be explored in a story that’s based strictly on realistic elements. Of course some sci-fi stories are set in today’s world because lots of chilling truths can be told about this world, especially about ecological nightmares or technology unleashed. So your opening can start in a galaxy far away or just down the street, but it promises that imaginative ideas will be explored.

Likewise, suspense novels are always about a crime and a criminal who needs to be caught. Besides the classic detective story, there are subgenres such as espionage, psychological suspense, romantic suspense, police procedural, courtroom procedural, whodunit, and cozies. Each type has varying degrees of violence and grit, but all are a thrill ride. And the opening must present a world in which all hell is about to break loose.

If you’re writing a romance, in the opening pages love will be in the air, as the lovers collide, usually appearing at an inconvenient time. In a romance, readers expect to delve deeply into the hero’s and heroine’s psyches, want to watch the blossoming romance falter and fizzle before it finally blooms, and want all other aspects of the plot—even if it is set on another planet in the distant future—to rank secondary to the romance.

But all this is promised in an opening that unfolds with just the right note. An emotional opening prepares the reader for a heart-rattling journey, just as a philosophical opening promises a thoughtful exploration of themes, an action-packed opening promises a bronco-breaking ride, and a quiet beginning usually promises an intense exploration of characters’ lives. So start with a specific promise about the story that follows and then, drumroll, please, keep the promise.

~ Jessica Page Morrell is a veteran writing coach who has written several books for writers including Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing and Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction. This excerpt is from her latest book Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us (Tarcher/Penguin paperback).

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