David Farland’s Writing Tips: Opening Well

There’s a list of things that you need to open a story. In fact, depending upon the author you talk to, there are dozens of different lists.

For example, one editor I respect recently suggested that in the opening, you need to establish the “Ghost” of the story, spelled G.O.S.T.

G stand for the Goal—What does your character hope to achieve? Does she want to return to a younger time, solve her financial problems, escape her father’s influence?  Pick a goal, and tell us about it.

O stands for the Obstacles your character faces. Is it another person, the basic facts of life, health problems, society as a whole?

S stands for the Stakes of the story. What real “personal emotional stakes” are on the line for your character? 

It isn’t enough to say that the world is in danger. The world is too big a place, too unknowable, too unlikeable. Frodo Baggins didn’t give a hoot about the world—Gollum in his cave, Shelob in her lair, the wights in their barrows. He cared about Hobbiton, its carefree people, about his little home at Bag’s End. That is what was at stake.

In the same way, your protagonist needs to love her little sister, her house on the beach, or something else she feels deeply connected with.

T is for Tactics. What strategy does your character devise to get what she wants? If your readers don’t know what she plans to do and why she plans to do it, they won’t care about the story. 

Let me give you an example. Let’s say that your protagonist gets fired from her job, and just walks out her front door (as I often see in fiction). Your readers have no idea where she is going. She could be taking a walk to calm down, or perhaps going to a bank in the hopes of robbing it. You might think that refusing to tell us what is going on in your protagonist’s mind might raise the tension, but this is just false tension. It’s just the author withholding information. There isn’t any real tension until we know what she hopes to do and why. Let’s say that she does want to rob a bank. Let’s say that her little sister will be taken by child welfare services is she doesn’t. Now she has a goal, something to achieve.

Of course, each author has their own list of things they want to do in an opening. Orson Scott Card has a list of questions he wants to answer for his reader. If I recall correctly, some are: “What’s going on?” “Oh, yeah—really?” “Why should I care?” 

In the opening, we have a character who is typically introduced in the process of doing something. We need to explain what that is, what her motivations are. If she’s an astronaut in training, hoping to go to Mars, we might show her trying to land a ship on the moon. We can introduce interesting complications there, show her goals, her limitations, and so on.

When we get to the “Oh, yeah—really?” question, we need to help the reader buy into the story, to engage their “suspension of disbelief.” In science fiction and fantasy we often start with a premise that might sound wildly implausible. For example, I might have two characters arguing while strolling on the surface of the sun. So an early job as writers might be to explain the premises of the story in such a way that walking on the sun becomes believable. Do my characters have some sort of barely imaginable protective gear that works just fine at 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or are they projecting their minds telepathically? I need to overcome the reader’s objections to what I’m describing.

In a similar way, I might have a character who is engaged in an extraordinary endeavor—let’s say a quest to overthrow a foreign dictator. I might need to work hard just to explain the character’s motivation and methods for doing it. If my protagonist is the head of a covert government agency and a trained assassin, he would try to resolve the problem a lot differently than if he were a pastry chef.

Then we have the question, “Why should I care?” This one is tremendously important. Let me put it this way, “If you’re reader doesn’t care, she’ll leave the story.” It doesn’t matter how big the conflict is if the reader doesn’t care, so you have struggle.

It may be that the protagonist is facing a problem that the reader is also worried about. Perhaps the protagonist is in a loveless marriage, and the reader is too. That can made the reader care.

We may need to go further and put the protagonist in pain, either because she if physically abused or emotionally tormented.

You can also create a bond between the character and the reader by showing that the character cares about others—a friend, a blind man on the street, or a stray kitten. In fact, whenever you show a character either in pain or revealing compassion for another, it causes the reader’s pituitary gland to release oxytocin—a hormone that causes the reader to feel sympathy for the character. 

If your reader doesn’t care about he protagonist, chances are good that the reader won’t make it even a few pages into the story. I’ve abandoned books hundreds of pages in because I found the protagonists’ to be unlikeable. 

It’s important to note that you need to reinforce the audiences sympathy for a character from time to time. For example, in The Hunger Games, I was a little dubious about Katniss at first. Here was a young attractive woman who wouldn’t let herself be attracted to a man because she didn’t want to bring any children into her world. It wasn’t until she gallantly “volunteered” to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games that I felt myself really loving her as a character, and the author, Suzanne Collins, had Katniss show amazing compassion several times through the story, so that she nurtured and deepened the reader’s love for Katniss.

Other authors have lists, too. Algis Budrys used to teach that there are seven parts to a story. (I teach nine.) The first three of those come in the opening. You need to 1) establish a character (usually a protagonist), 2) in a setting, 3) with a significant conflict. 

This might sound easy, but just doing three things in an entertaining way can be a challenge.

For example, let’s take your character. If you’re introducing a protagonist, you might want to illustrate who this person is at heart—what things they love, what they fear, what secrets they keep. You might want to astonish the reader with the protagonist’s skills or motives. You may even want to withhold information on the protagonist for introduction later. 

More importantly, you may have an entire cast that you need to begin introducing in an opening scene—an antagonist, a lover, a teacher, a dear friend. So just introducing characters can be tough. Once you get more than three characters in a scene, just staging where each is in relation to the others can be hard.

As far as the setting goes, you need to answer basic questions of where and when this story takes place. Is it in a hole in a ground where a Hobbit lives? What kind of a hole is it? And what the heck is a Hobbit?  Beyond that, what is near at hand for the protagonist, what is in the midground, and what’s in the background? What period are we in? What time is it exactly? What’s the light source for the scene and what’s the weather like today as opposed to yesterday? 

What of conflicts? Every character needs at least one and probably several. The protagonist might be late for work when the car breaks down. She doesn’t have money for a cab and needs to be to work by ten.  She might have a sick baby and she’s worried about it, but by the end of the first scene in a short story, our protagonist usually has a jaw-dropping moment where she realizes that she is in for the most-difficult fight of her life. Maybe she gets to her job as a teller and finds that her bank has been robbed, everyone working in the bank was killed, and now the police think that it was an inside job. She’s become their lead suspect.

Now, you might succeed in getting all three of those elements into a first paragraph, but probably not. Algis had a rule though for a short story: if you didn’t get all three by the bottom of your second page, you were probably going to get rejected. It’s a good rule.

I like to add something to Algis’s list, however. I like to add a hook to my story. A hook is any little tidbit that makes the reader wonder. What’s going on? What will happen next? Who is this character? What’s this story really about?

For example, consider the line by Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” When and where is this story taking place? Well, these words could easily be penned by someone who was looking at our world in April 2020, but Dickens was talking about the world of London and Paris just before the French Revolution.

This is what I call a “setting hook.” It’s designed to make people wonder where and when the story is set. So the hook helps fulfill the reader’s need to envision a setting.

There are a lot of kinds of hooks. I talk about eight of them in my Writing Enchanting Prose workshops, and Alfred Hitchcock played with a couple of others, but having hooks in the opening of a story does some subtle things.

All stories rely in part on a sense of mystery—what is going to happen next? Why? How will the character resolve this problem? 

By using a hook early, we create a mystery. The reader’s hypothalamus releases a little burst of dopamine, a reward for having begun the story, which then induces the reader to read on. As the author answers that first mystery over ensuing paragraphs and pages, the reader begins to develop a sense of trust for the author. On a subconscious level, the reader begins to recognize that the writer will not just raise questions but will also answer them in a compelling and exciting way. 

In short, the opening to any story promises the reader a sense of fulfillment.

So the author has many things that they might try to do in an opening. Here’s a partial list:

  1. Hook the reader not just once, but as many as five ways on the first page.
  2. Develop the emotional tone of the scene—perhaps making a reader cry.
  3. Create resonance with other great stories in the same genre.
  4. Introduce the cast, knowing that we will deepen the characters later.
  5. Establish character motivations.
  6. Imagine a new and astonishing world.
  7. Begin discussing the deeper themes of the story, creating the tale’s subtext.
  8. Show editors and agents just how good you are by introducing literary fireworks.
  9. Create a jaw-dropping moment that gives a reader chills.
  10. And many more.

My friend Mike Resnick, who won many Hugos and Nebulas for his short fiction, used to say that he spent 80% of his time composing the first two pages of his award-winning stories, and just 20% writing the rest. When you consider just how challenging creating an opening can be, it makes perfect sense.

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