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  • Anouchka Harris

Writing Tips: Openings

It's the start of the year so I thought it would be a good time to consider the start of novels. This is just a few of my thoughts on what I think makes a good opening.

1. An arresting first line. It doesn’t need to be Iain Banks level good (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The Crow Road) but it does need to be engaging. It can be easy to set impossible goals for ourselves, that the opening line needs to be the best opening line ever written otherwise our entire book will be a failure. But obviously, that’s not true. Opening lines are important, but they’re not everything. You have to follow an opening line with an equally good opening chapter.

2. Questions. Your readers aren’t stupid. Don’t be afraid to makes them ask questions. They’ll be able to handle not understanding everything at once. In fact, you don’t want them to understand everything at once. Making your reader ask questions is how you get them to keep reading. Eventually, they get to a point when they’re invested in your world, in your story, in your characters, and they just have no choice but to keep going. Questions are good. In V.E. Schwab’s Vicious, the opening chapter has the main characters digging up a recently-buried body. It isn’t explained who it is, why they’re there, how the three characters even know each other. All of that will come to be explained in the flashbacks that make up most of the novel.

3. Answers... but just a few. Don’t leave the reader completely in the dark. Answer a few of their questions. If your opening chapter shows someone burying a body, tell them how the person died, but not who they are or why they died. Strike a balance between leaving your reader with no questions (and no need to keep reading) and with leaving your reader dissatisfied. Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone gives the historical context the reader needs in order to understand the world she had created. The reader needs to know that magic has vanished, about the massacre that ensued, and the people who are now oppressed because they no longer have magic to protect themselves. Without a short, expositional, history lesson, it would be a lot harder to keep the story running smoothly without the reader getting too distracted by the details they don’t understand. Figure out what your reader really needs to know right now. What do they need in order to be invested in the story you’re telling them?

4. To prologue or not to prologue? If you have a prologue, decide what it is you want it to achieve. What tone do you want it to set? Are you giving the reader a glimpse into the future? Are they seeing the moments before a doom your protagonist finds themselves hurtling towards? Or is it something more mysterious, that your reader will only understand the significance of when they reach the end? Whatever you choose, don’t have a prologue just for the sake of having one. Make sure it has a purpose and you know what it is, even if the reader doesn't.

5. Your protagonist or antagonist. Personally, I enjoy it best when I get to meet a character straight away, one who’s going to stick around for the whole book. Keeping it more vague can work as well, but I think it’s usually harder. A strong character will anchor your opening. It always triggers something in my mind, a little aha, this is who I’m supposed to be interested in. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel Dogs of War opens with a routine covert operation in which the biomechanical attack-dog, Rex, is sent to kill civilians. This opening chapter fully establishes how Rex operates, how he is trained, as well as the fact that he doesn’t see anything beyond what his Master tells him is good or bad. Tchaikovsky introduces a vicious character who the reader can immediately understand. It helps that his character is also unique and makes for a fascinating perspective.

6. Action. This doesn’t need to be a literal action scene, but you probably want something intense to start off the story. One of the typical rules is to wait as long as possible before starting the story that the reader gets to enjoy. Leave only the most interesting parts of the story. Ideally, I would want the protagonist in the midst of the action, trying to achieve something. It can either be a success or a failure for them, either one can be interesting. But they need to do something. Interesting characters are characters who have to make choices, even if they choose the wrong thing. Do they choose to act out of self-interest, or selflessness? Is their choice considered or is it impulsive? Whether it’s a big choice, or a small one, what your character does and how they do it should tell the reader about the character. Choices make your character interesting.

That's all for now!


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