Powerful Openings

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Powerful Openings

Is your opening powerful? If not, why not?

I’ve been judging a huge writing contest this week, and had literally a couple hundred stories that came close to placing as finalists. These stories were good, the writing beautiful, but the story itself was often flawed—and usually in the opening.

You see, in a short story, every scene must be needed. Every paragraph, every sentence, should be vital. There should be no deadwood.

Think of your scenes as links on a chain. If one of those links is rusty or broken, the whole chain is weak.

So how do you break the story early on? The most common way is to have a character traveling to a meeting. Maybe John is driving down the freeway to the most important meeting in his life, or Urcyk is climbing a mountain pass to reach the temple that his mentor is in, or Glom 38 is landing his ship inhabited only by biological organisms—no hope of sentient life at all.

The question is, does the character need to be in a vehicle thinking, instead of doing something?

A similar problem occurs when your character starts out asleep and wakes up. Boring.

What’s even worse is when your character has been running and finds himself sitting on a log, wondering how he had gotten himself into this terrible predicament.

Your story begins when you have a character (likeable or not), in a setting (interesting or not), with a problem (and it darned well ought to be a doozy). My mentor Algis Budrys said that as a rule of thumb, if a writer doesn’t have that by page two, then the story most likely isn’t sellable. He’s right. The stories that do well in my competition are the ones that grip me from the first page to the last.

Remember, the first link in your chain must be strong. Then make sure that every other link is just as formidable. Oh, and the ending link: it needs to be stronger than all the rest.

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