Open Sesame! #atozchallenge

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Author: Susan Helene Gottfried

When I was in grad school, I had a classmate who’d repeat the old quote, “The first line of your book sells it. The last line sells the next one.”

There are also all sorts of memes and groups who focus entirely on first lines. They expect them to be powerful, to grip you by the throat and not let go. (Go on and Google this, but be sure to come back when you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of links.)

I am not so sure one sentence should have that much power. But I do agree that the first scene should.

Openings. Opening scenes. They matter.

For a young writer, finding the right opening of their manuscript can be the hardest part of the entire drafting process. Some of that gets back to giving yourself permission to puke on the page and get to know your story the hard, sloppy way. Some of it is because maybe you like the opening you wrote, and so you let your emotions cloud your wisdom. At that point, I tell my clients to cut it and save it in a separate file, either for use later in this book or maybe build a stand-alone short story from that scene. It can work for you as bonus marketing material.

But simply put, the general wisdom is correct: the opening has to grab a reader. That doesn’t mean every single book has to start with action. If that were the case, we’d be horribly bored with action-filled openings, even though there’s an infinite way to begin a project with action. I remember one client opened with a house fire that was epic. But it had less than zero to do with the rest of the story, other than it starred one of the main characters.

And there’s the next point: your opening may not have to start with action, but it has to set up the story you’re about to tell! Steve’s opening didn’t do that, as awesomely written as that house fire was. Readers were right there with those characters and… I spent the rest of the entire trilogy trying to figure out what it had to do with anything.

You don’t want your reader doing that, reading with half a mind, the other half focused on looking for connections. You want them wholly immersed.

Just as, when I say that a book doesn’t have to begin with action, you also don’t want to bore your reader with excessive description or — WAY worse — navel-gazing. You know what navel-gazing is, right? A character who gets lost in their thoughts, in philosophy, in justification for their deeds… they’re sitting around and gazing at their navels, admiring the way the doctor or midwife tied off that knot and set him or her free from Mom.

So where’s the middle ground?

Well, action is okay. It’s just not mandatory.

And brief description is okay.

So are fresh scenarios, which means no waking up first thing in the morning, or listening to the birds sing. As a rule of thumb, it’s probably not the best idea to open a book with a character in bed, unless it directly relates to the conflict about to unfold.

I once read a book for review that opened with what was supposed to be a hot and heavy sex scene. It also contained no small amount of internal warfare as the woman involved tried to justify allowing herself to have sex with this guy, who she obviously hated.

It was really hard to connect to her, to feel the hot and heavy part of the scene. For one, we didn’t have an emotional investment in the characters. And for another, her wonderings made us wonder if this was something we were supposed to enjoy.

Go figure, but the rest of the book referred to this sex scene with the same tangled, mixed-up feelings, and that colored the entire book. The woman would sound like a harpy when she would shriek at the man about how they’d had this sexual encounter and she regretted it every time there was conflict between them.

The takeaway in all this? Openings are hard. Really hard. Books often wind up not opening where you originally think they should, and it can be hard to kill really good writing (like I said… save for later!).

That’s where a good editor can help. This is one of many reasons why smart authors hire a good editor.

Think about your opening. Drop me a line if you have questions. We can have a short discussion before I’ll ask you to cough up cash for a coaching fee!

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  • Sandra Ulbrich Almazan -

    Openings are very tough, and there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there. I’ve heard some people say you should try to evoke all five senses on the first page. Other people recommend a compelling hook at the end to make people keep reading. I’ve also read books with openings that didn’t tie into the rest of the story. Either someone thought it worked, or the author was selling well enough that no one thought it mattered. (The book I have in mind was part of a very popular series.)