Jane Friedman’s writing advice is always welcome, and a recent column, “Five Common Story Openings to Avoid,” has that irresistible (“If I only do THAT . . .”) specificity. Skipping ahead to the bottom line, she confirms that almost any story opening can work if it’s done well enough, but she cautions against assuming your story will be the exception. You may be handing some overwhelmed agent/editor/publisher an excuse to say “no.” In general, then, here’s my take on her examples of weak openings:
- A waking up scene – These don’t make for very compelling reading, Jane says, even if the character is awakening on an important day. The reader doesn’t know that yet. There’s a lot readers don’t know at the beginning of a book, of course, but the opener probably needs to provide more than the quotidian to keep their interest. Gregor Samsa’s waking up to find he’s turned into a bug is compelling, but Kafka snagged that one.
- A transit scene – Scenes that describe a character moving from one place to another typically lack engaging drama, Jane says. Regular commuting hassles don’t cut it, but a strong voice or compelling situation may. The wonderful novel The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson is hardly anything but transit, the 100-mile trip a local delivery man makes, back and forth, back and forth, along a single road in rural Utah and the indelible characters that people his route. Deon Meyer’s thriller Fever, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa, starts with a dangerous trip to a highly uncertain future.
- A “rocking chair scene” – This is where a character is alone, mulling over their life or recent events. If this is necessary backstory, there are more dynamic ways to introduce it, she suggests. And preferably in manageable bites. I have a tendency to write a couple of paragraphs to rev my engines before the action of the story begins. The fix is easy. When I edit, I chop off those paragraphs and get going.
- A crisis scene – Jane says opening a story in the middle of a crisis may seem dramatic, but often doesn’t raise interesting questions. Readers have too little information to appreciate the stakes. She calls this “false suspense.” Similarly, I’m not engaged by openings that use ostensibly dramatic dialog, such as “Oh, no!” Katie cried, “This is the worst day of my life!” As a reader, I don’t know anything about Katie yet, so her “worst day” assessment carries no weight. I’d call this “false excitement.”
- A dream sequence – “A common trope and a tired one,” she says. The problem with this opener is that, in a dream, anything can happen, whereas, to be interesting, characters need to be responding to their situation, making decisions, and coping with the consequences. A dream doesn’t offer true choices or raise valid story questions.
A common thread among several of these openings is that characters are alone, and when they are, the lack of interaction with others doesn’t give the reader a useful second perspective, or a view of how characters relate to others. Sometimes that’s on purpose, as when you gradually realize the narrator you’ve come to trust is unreliable. Editor Ray Rhamey has a nine-point checklist for the first page of a novel, which is a useful way to make sure your first page does everything it needs to.
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