The opening lines, paragraphs, and chapters of a story have a lot of work to do. They need to set the tone; introduce the characters and setting; set-up the conflict; and catch (and keep) the reader’s attention. Ideally, the opening of a story should be an irresistible invitation to the reader; one that hooks them and then keeps them turning the pages all the way to the final conflict resolution and happily-ever-after.
In Kay’s recent Would You Buy This Book post she talked about a blog that has a regular feature where the opening page of a best-selling novel is posted and readers are asked to vote on whether it would catch their interest enough to keep them reading or not. While I’m not likely to make a reading decision based on a single opening page, it is an interesting exercise and underscores how important it is to get a story off to a strong start. In the McDaniel program we spent quite a bit of time working on the opening lines to our stories, trying to find just the right words to hook a reader – not a task for the faint at heart.
The opening of a story is important but, after reading Jenny’s recent post over at Argh Ink about the round of vicious cuts she just did on her first chapter to get her current story off to a fast start, I’ve been thinking about just how fast that opening needs to be. While a lean, fast opening will get a reader into the story quicker, there is a trade-off in terms of the depth and breadth of detail that can be provided and the potential reader engagement.
While a slow story start can leave me bored or cause my mind to wander, a start that moves too quickly can leave me confused about what’s happening and unable to really connect to the story. That last is especially true when a lot of characters are introduced very quickly.
I think of a story opening kind of like a roller coaster. Part of the excitement of the ride is the anticipation that builds as you slowly advance up the incline prior to that first, exhilarating drop. Would the drop be as exciting without the climb? Maybe, or maybe it would just be different. The trick is to figure out the appropriate amount of climb for the story you are telling (and for your writing style).
I read a couple of mystery stories recently: One had the dead body on the first page, in the other he didn’t show up until page 120. They both worked, but they were very different stories. One was focused on the crime and the other focused on the victim. Had the first story had a slower start, it would have been less engaging and had the second had a faster start, the murder (and its resolution) would not have worked.
So, how fast is too fast, when it comes to a story opening?
I think the answer is: It depends.
What kind of story start to you prefer – a bit of a build-up or a quick drop over the edge? Do you have any examples of books that you felt got off to a particularly good start?