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Starting Your Story: Tips and Tricks

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Sun Dec 27, 2020 7:29 pm
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pelsteam says...

We’ve all been there, trying to craft the perfect opening to our chapters. Sometimes the writer’s block hits hard and all we can think of is our personal equivalent of “It was a dark and stormy night”.

So how do you write a good opening line or paragraph? Here are a few of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years:

1. A good opening line should be interesting.

This is probably a bit of a no-brainer, but it can be easy to overlook when you’re trying to build a picture. If your reader hasn’t had a chance to become engaged yet, their attention span is going to be low. Avoid excessively long sentences and meaningless descriptions of the scenery.

Dialogue is a good way to start as long as you’re opening on an interesting conversation. For example:

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.” (George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones)

Already we have some idea of what’s going on. There were wildlings, they were the reason for Gared’s excursion, and they are dead for some reason. You can probably see why this is more effective than Gared just complaining that it’s getting dark.

2. Characters help you form quick hooks.

Introducing your character early on isn’t a must, but it adds the human element to your story. It’s especially helpful when the character sets the voice for the story as a whole.

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. (Emma Donoghue, Room)

Here we have a good idea of the protagonist’s voice; a five-year-old with a childlike view of the world. It’s immediately engaging.

3. The art of the subtle infodump.

An opening line (or paragraph) needs to tell the reader something about the world. Quite frequently they tell the reader a lot more than you might immediately realise.

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. (Philip Pullman, Northern Lights)

Here we have the following pieces of information:
1. A potential main character, Lyra.
2. An immediate contrast between our world and the world of the story; what is a daemon?
3. Time of day.
4. The mention of a Hall makes this unlikely to be a domestic setting.
5. Lyra and her daemon are obviously sneaking about.
6. There is a kitchen next to the Hall.

Putting this in practice.

I use the subtle infodump technique the most. One of the ways I write an opening line is to come up with five pieces of information I want to convey. For example, in one of my stories I had the following:

1. Main character lives on a farm
2. Main character finds her life to be boring
3. Main character is a child with little freedom
4. There is a repeated nuisance from “river raptors”, which is the main plot

It was another boring morning on the farm, a boring morning of being locked in the house while her dad chased river raptors again.

It’s not perfect but it’s serviceable; it’s not too long and it gets across all the information I wanted.

Hopefully this is of some help. I used to get really held up on the perfect opening, and this discovery has sped up the process considerably. Let me know if you have any other tips!

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
— Neil Gaiman