Elizabeth: How Fast is Too Fast

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?

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth: How Fast is Too Fast

  1. Well, I think I like either build-up or action starts, depending on how they are done. Build-up must be an interesting story in its own right, or full of details that will be used soon — like the next scene or the next chapter. Foreshadowing is important, but too much foreshadowing is distracting.

    It’s amazing that Jenny is able to introduce as many characters in her Chapter One as she does — there’s the mark of a master who has a lot of hours of writing under her belt. I think what she’s having trouble with right now is the foreshadowing. Her books are always complex, and from the comment section, she’s trying to establish a lot of problems in a very short space.

    1. A man has been murdered. (Someone leaves town.)
    2. Supernatural beings have come to the island. (Someone comes to town!)
    3. Nita has problems at work, resulting in a new partner (someone else comes to town) and bad blood with the old partner.
    4. The cops in town are not on the up-and-up.
    5. There is trouble in Hell, which is going to influence the Island situation. (And some Hellish characters are not on the up-and-up; not sure if she’s establishing this in the first chapter. But there are the poison doughnuts. And the mysterious Mr. Lemon.)
    6. Someone’s poisoning people on the island.
    7. Whatever the Hotels are supposed to be doing.
    8. Love story.At least one, possibly two.
    9. Mort — human expert on the supernatural.

    And I’m sure there are at least a dozen other things going on that are given just a word or phrase, but are going to become important later. (Scupper, for example.I forgot the Scupper.)

    She’s going to make it amazing.

    But she’s had a lot of practice.

    I don’t know if you remember the story I was working on for class. Boy, there was a busy introduction — I threw in tons of characters (which was appropriate for a discovery draft, but not for a later draft). I do remember thinking, “OK, I need to give the reader a chance to take a very deep breath before I plunge them into this.” So, I started with two characters looking at a mansion they’d been called to for an emergency. I slowly added the antagonist’s wife (although, I’m still not sure if she might have been the antagonist), and then . . . all hell broke loose. Pool party guests, demon invasion, food fight using the catering tools for defense . . . . Really beyond my skill levels at that point, LOL. I learned a lot, though, by shooting above my skill levels, and I might talk about this in tomorrow’s blog post. The feedback I got from everyone who read it was really enlightening. (-: I fought it, but then I actually eventually learned something!

  2. I think the trick in the opening scene, whether it’s a steep trajectory or a slower one, is making it clear to the reader that they are on a roller coaster.

    I’ve reread the beginning of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon twenty times, minimum, because even though it’s a slow-starting book, it’s still clear that you’re on a roller coaster right from the start.

    First line: It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.

    That line actually tells us two things:
    1) Someone is going to disappear (roller coaster alert!)
    2) But we’re going to step into this slowly, so sink back in your chair and get comfy.

    It also tells us this author is a master storyteller and we can trust her to keep us entertained.

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