A Common Problem with Story Openings

I have a saying, “There are a ten thousand right ways to write any story, but there are a million wrong ways to do it.” I use this to point out that lots of things work, but new writers often don’t recognize that some things never work. So let’s get into a few of them.

False Tension. Some authors will try to hide information about their characters from the reader—such as the character’s name, age, sex, and so on. It’s a technique that you’ve seen a thousand times in films. You know, it’s a misty day and a mysterious figure is glimpsed walking along a cobblestone street in old London. The viewer is left to wonder if this is a killer on the prowl, or perhaps another victim for Jack the Ripper. We see the person’s feet, the back of a cloak, a dagger protruding from a voluminous sleeve. Eventually the camera pulls back to reveal, at just the right instant, our heroine—out hunting for Jack. The technique works in film, but so often it is done clumsily in novels. For example, I’ve seen stories where the author tries to hide the age, sex, and name of her viewpoint character. How wrong-headed is that? I mean, when you’ve got a viewpoint character, you’re seeing the story from that person’s eyes. They know who they are, what their sex is, and so on.

The author in this case is trying to create what we call a “reveal” in Hollywood—a moment where the audience gasps in surprise. But hiding a viewpoint character’s name or sex is just a dumb thing to try. You’ve got to pick better moments, pivotal moments, to put in reveals.

In the same way, I’ve seen authors try to hide their settings, the main conflicts, and so on—all vital information that the reader needs in order to become engaged in and enjoy the story.

I think that new authors sometimes feel that this technique is justifiable because stories are so often confusing when we start them, the author thinks that it is desirable to keep the reader confused. Part of that comes as our misperceptions as readers. When we’re young and inexperienced readers, stories are confusing anyway. Our vocabulary is often small or just different from the authors, so we don’t understand some of the words. Even if we’ve heard a word hundreds of times as an eight-year-old, we might not recognize it in print. After all, spelling conventions in English are rather confusing.

As young readers, we are also hampered by the fact that we might not understand storytelling conventions. You probably don’t remember this, but as a kid, when you first read dialog, you really had a difficult time trying to separate it from narrative. There are little things like that.

So if you’re a young reader trying to garner information, it can be difficult to get into the author’s world, to feel it come alive. Naturally, you might feel that author is being coy, withholding information.

Added to this problem is that sometimes you will read a story by an author who is either inexperienced or just bad. In short, you’ve read stories by many authors who don’t know very well how to bring a story to life. Even good authors become inattentive at times and fail to properly guide the reader through their fictive universes.

Let me put this clearly. The author’s job is not to withhold most information, but to convey it. Your job isn’t to deprive the reader of story elements, but to create a powerful illusion of reality, a shared dream that the reader can easily enter.

Now, there are some mysteries that the author can’t reveal, information that ought to be parsed out slowly. As a mystery author, your job might well be to make a game out of withholding the identity of a killer until the end of the novel, for example.

But you need to learn the difference between what should and shouldn’t be withheld.

Very often, I’ve seen authors who feel that it helps “raise the tension” in a story to withhold vital information that the reader absolutely has to have in order to become engaged in the tale.

In a way, it does raise the tension . . . by making the reader furious!

I call this mistake “creating false tension.” Don’t do it. It’s a cheap trick.

Instead, create a genuine conflict for your character and let the tension arise naturally.

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Hour 3–Create Your Characters
Hour 4–Weaving the Plot

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Hour 6–Drafting Your Opening/Hooking Your Reader
Hour 7–Enchanting Your Reader Image by Image
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