Empty Space: Some thoughts on openings in novels

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.  A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.
(Peter Brook)

Everything you need to know about openings is present in this quote by theater director Peter Brook.  The essence of storytelling lives in this moment:  one (metaphorically or perhaps literally) walks, another watches.  This happens every time we open a book and start reading.

The director and actor make choices just as the writer does.  How does the man walk?  Is he triumphant?  Frightened?  Weary?  In love?  How is in-love-ness conveyed?  Why?  And why have you made that choice and not another one?

Openings are part of the overall plot arc, the overall narrative.  The opening carries within it the ending, it can foreshadow, reflect, parallel, hint at, paint the mood of, contrast with, or lay the groundwork for the ending.

I’m not a believer in the One True Path.  I am not going to tell you there are hard and fast rules that govern openings.  If you can make it work, then it’s working, whether it is the rule or the exception.  But I do have thoughts on the issue of openings in fiction.

Here are three things I consider when I am searching for the right place to begin.

1)  Consistency of tone.

A tragedy will not usually start with a comic episode, unless there are tragic implications hidden within the joke.  A comic story will not often have a portentous beginning, unless you are Terry Prachett and that is part of the joke.

I personally tend to emphasize consistency of tone between opening and closing, even and perhaps especially in a lengthy series.  Naturally, as with all rules of this sort, there are times that this guideline can be ignored, but be sure you know exactly what you are doing if you choose to open with a tone inconsistent with the overall tone or with the ending of the story.

2)  Why is this the right place to begin instead of some other point?

We as writers are making arbitrary choices.  In rare cases, such as a story that starts with the birth of the hero and ends with the death of the hero, your starting and ending points are chosen for you (although even there you have to decide how you’re going to approach the scene).  More commonly the writer can choose from a selection of possible starting points.

Do you begin with the duke receiving the letter informing him that his son has died at court under mysterious circumstances, or with the morning the duke sends that son off to court while worrying that his enemies there may wish to do the lad ill?

Do you begin with the young schoolmarm facing her first day of class in a one room school house in the middle of the frontier, or with her tempestuous parting from her disapproving father and mother, who believe that education and employment are unwomanly and that she is disgracing the family?

Sometimes you go straight for the drama.  Sometimes a more overtly dramatic scene is not the right place to begin because the reader doesn’t have enough identification with the character to make her really feel for the situation.

Sometimes a seemingly-good introductory scene merely becomes a long stretch of infodump.

Exhausted, she reached the city gates only to find them closed with approaching dusk, and she sank to the ground and wept as it rained on her uncovered head.  She thought of the hardships that had brought her here, and then followed a page of infodump background.  In such cases, the information might be better introduced through a series of scenes set before she reaches the closed gates during which the reader (we hope) comes to identify with the protagonist(s);  in fact, the closed gates might be your end point for the first chapter.  Or the closed gates might cause her to encounter other locked-out travelers, and their shared travails in the rain might slowly lead to shared stories or further difficulties that reveal some of the particulars of her sad journey.

Ask yourself WHY you want to start with this scene, this encounter, this emotion, this line or image.

If it is for the sake of some inherent coolness or shock value of the scene itself, then you may want to reconsider.  Or not.  Every now and then Coolth Value or Shock Value wins, but be careful.

If it is a slam-bang action scene without other context, you may want to reconsider.  In media res can work, but it can also backfire badly if the reader can’t identify with the characters or situation and so finds the action merely confusing and distancing.

Any opening can work if it does work, but avoid what seems flashy or sleek just for the sake of flashiness or sleekiness.  There should be more than one reason to choose a particular point of opening.  Maybe it’s cool AND emotional;  maybe it’s emotional and quiet and has subtle foreshadowing;  maybe it’s kick ass action but so clearly laid out and with such a strong hook for the reader to identify with the protagonist that there’s no problem with the reader feeling distanced from the scene.

Ask yourself how this scene will book-end the closing.

Ask yourself if what you reveal here, no matter how small, will resonate throughout the narrative.

Ask yourself if the reader can quickly figure out what is going on, and if s/he will want to read more.  Because that is really the crucial issue at this stage of the narrative.

3)  By what method or (hook) are you going to engage (or grab) the reader’s attention?

One way to look at openings is to identify workable methods for grabbing and holding onto the readers’ attention.  Using such “gambits” is an artificial mechanism, but especially in the apprentice and journeyman stage I think the artificiality can be useful.  In any case, it’s always useful to analyze why and how things are working, or not working.

Examples of opening gambits include (but are by no means limited to):

a) the approaching train wreck

b) raising questions in the reader’s mind that the reader wants answered

c) engaging the sympathy of the reader for the protagonist

d) evoking a sense of wonder, of beauty, of landscape, or of an intellectual or philosophical tone that draws the reader in

The approaching train wreck is a metaphor for two forces headed for an inevitable collision, visually seen as a car racing for a rail crossing on a dark night as a train barrels down likewise.  If, in your opening, you set up your racing car and your barreling train, you will capture your reader’s interest:  will the two (metaphorical) vehicles collide?  And if so, or if not, what then?

Raising questions in the reader’s mind can be used in subtle or blunt fashion.  “I didn’t mean to kill him” creates questions:  who is “I,” who is “he,” how was he killed, and why didn’t “I” mean to do it?  That’s at least four questions packed into one simple sentence.  A subtler approach tugs more gently on the reader’s interest, maybe without the reader quite realizing they are already asking questions about the protagonist’s situation or thoughts.

Engaging the sympathy of the reader for the protagonist can be as simple as setting up the abused but determined child trying to escape, say, indentured servitude, especially if, say, her beloved pet cat is taken away from her as a piece of casual cruelty, or as complex as the protagonist’s “voice” being so appealing that you want to walk alongside the character and listen.

The final example, of evocation, is probably one of the more difficult ones to pull off successfully but works well with the right narrative.  It likely would not be used to open a slam-bang adventure novel, but a related form of opening, in which the scene opens with a panoramic view and narrows down to close range (as in a film), is a technique used in narratives that have a more epic flavor because the panoramic view introduces by its very presence the notion of “scope.”  In this same way, in reverse, a convoluted landscape can be introduced by starting with a narrow focus and slowly opening out over the course of the story.

The key with any of these techniques is that they force you, the writer, to think about exactly where, how, and why that opening works for the story you want to tell.  Openings in narrative are not random or predetermined;  you choose them.

15 thoughts on “Empty Space: Some thoughts on openings in novels

  1. Great essay – like a mentoring session on one of the writing challenges that can make or break a sale. In the wonderful synchronicity of things, I’ve been wrestling with the opening of a project I began many years ago. Your thoughts helped me to step back and consider what I want the opening to accomplish.

    • I have always struggled with openings, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how they work. Someday I will actually figure it out.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this for the unwritten trunk novel in my head. How DO I open it, when it comes to paper?

    If it is a slam-bang action scene without other context, you may want to reconsider. In media res can work, but it can also backfire badly if the reader can’t identify with the characters or situation and so finds the action merely confusing and distancing.

    And that is exactly what I was thinking for the opening, and a “flashforward” at that…

  3. Great insights, as always.

    Although actually, speaking from a pragmatic, business pov, I think there is one sorta kinda One Truth about openings. Their primary function, in the big picture, is to make 1) an agent then 2) an editor then 3) a bookshop browser (or an online equivalent) decide they want your book instead of another one they’ve picked up. The opening is kind of like a speed date. Generally speaking, you don’t have a lot of time to make someone fall in love. You need to grab them by the throat and whisper seductively in their ear, Me, Me, Me.

    For a given set of speed daters. Because not everyone is going to love you, no matter how well you present yourself. So you need to offer the best version of the kind of opening that you love, and hope other people will love it too.

    But even with that, I think there’s a kind of universal truth to openings. Intrigue me, alarm me, seduce me, promise me a fantastic journey. I think that’s the job of the opening. Make me not want to put the book down from the get go.

    • Definitely agreed. I’m trying to deal with mechanics and structure because I think that is a difficult transition: It’s easy to say to an aspiring writer (or any writer), “Your opening needs to grab the reader” but harder to describe by what means one can achieve that desired object.

      • Absolutely. Yes. But is it easier, I wonder, to ask yourself — When a first reader turns to page 1, what could be happening that will make it impossible for them not to turn the page and keep reading? Does the answer to that question answer the dilemma of how, mechanically and structurally, to open a story?

        Secondary question, does this kind of approach negate the concept of a ‘soft’ opening? Are modern audiences too impatient for a ‘soft’ opening, when the rapidfire approach of most film/tv dramas, which I think have become the #1 form of imbibed storytelling, has conditioned the audience to instant adrenaline gratification? Or is the very fact that books can open softly, seductively, with a whisper and not a shout, offer a much looked for alternative?

        And if that’s the case, how then do we overcome the lack of adrenaline in such an opening, to make sure the reader keeps on reading past page 1, or even paragraph 1?

        • I think that falls under Q3 in the entry.

          But I also think it depends on what kind of a writer one is, and how one processes process, if that makes sense?

          I’m hyper analytical, so that’s how I tend to think through process when I’m trying to explain it. It’s why I think it can be so valuable for aspiring writers and writers trying to improve (the latter being most writers, however experienced, I should think) to consider a range of approaches in terms of how they are thinking about process and trying to figure out what it is they have to do.

          Writing workshops can be good because they expose people to different ways of looking, one or some of which will resonate more strongly than others, if that makes sense.

          I think your way of looking at the issue of openings is an excellent one. And I think I really helpful approach.

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    • Thanks.

      That one is a big deal for me personally. Although I hasten to add that like all writing rules it is possible to break it and make it work.

  5. You said: “A subtler approach tugs more gently on the reader’s interest, maybe without the reader quite realizing they are already asking questions about the protagonist’s situation or thoughts.”

    For an absolutely stellar example of this sort of opening, one that’s both subtle and revealing, as well as containing an exquisitely rising tension, read the opening scene of Joanna Bourne’s THE FORBIDDEN ROSE. (You can use the Amazon look-inside feature.)

    She was going to ditch that scene, out of fear that it wasn’t a proper kind of opening, but fortunately good sense prevailed and she kept it. I think it’s brilliant.

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