A big "Thank You" to Libby Drew for this weeks Wednesday blog!
No Warm-ups Required: Why Opening Matters
Warming up before you exercise makes good sense. You need to increase your body temperature. Stimulate blood flow to your ligaments. Mentally prepare yourself for what’s to come. Warming up for a workout is all about starting slow and building momentum.
Fiction is not exercise. Never start a story with a warm-up.
In other words, don’t open your masterpiece with an in depth description of a house, or the weather, or a town. The reader doesn’t need these things at the beginning of a story. These are static approaches, and most readers won’t abide by them. They’re simply too impatient. If you need description, give it later, after you’ve hooked the reader with action. Asking a reader to jump eagerly into a story that starts without motion is like trying to ride a bike with no wheels. You go nowhere… and so does your reader. Description is vital in fiction, but at the outset of the story it's deadly.
Also, don’t start with background information that happened months or years ago. Fiction looks forward, not backward. When you start a story with background information, you point readers in the wrong direction.
Always start the story with the first sentence! How do you do that?
Easy. (Here’s the crux of my spiel. You’ll be happy to know it doesn’t begin with “don’t.”)
Good fiction starts with—and deals with—someone's response to threat. To menace. To duress. We’re stimulated by threat. It’s human nature. Start your story with a car dangling over the side of a bridge. Start it with a groom running out of the church in the middle of his wedding ceremony. If your characters feel threatened, your readers will want to know why. That will keep them reading.
Threat. It doesn’t have to be a physical catastrophe. Writers, look to your own lives. What were some of the times when you felt most stressed? Your first day at a new job? The death of a loved one? Your first date? Begin stories with stressful events. Even if they are happy. Because change, almost any change, shakes our world up and makes us uneasy.
A car pulls into your driveway, and a stranger gets out.
You see your mother on the evening news. She’s crying.
You get a phone call from a strange number in the middle of the night.
Ed McMahon knocks on your door holding one of those big checks.
I see you wringing your hands. You need to tell readers about how things were fifty years ago in the neighborhood where your character lives. It’s important. Fine, but work it in later. Don’t inflict your concerns on the reader. They don’t care that you’re dying to tell them how character A’s grandma won the community cupcake decorating contest ten years in a row, although it’s a detail they’d probably enjoy later. Remember that readers want threat, the most common manifestation of which is change.
It’s easy. Really! Look to your own experiences for ideas. Make stuff up. It doesn’t matter. Just don’t begin a story with a warm-up. Start it at the very moment where everything changes.