On the rare days that I allow myself to dream that I will eventually make the time to write some more fiction, I dabble in reading interesting tidbits that resonate with me in terms of what I want to do as a writer. Not always “writing advice”, sometimes it is just about the industry, publishing, etc. Rarely do I find much in the way of real writing advice that I think, “Yes, that’s good stuff right there. I should bookmark that!”.
Way back in 2014, one of my regular feeds, The Passive Voice, shared excerpts from Gizmodo’s sub-website “i09” about science fiction writing entitled How To Create A Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even bother to click on a title like that…too clickbait-y, and honestly, rarely does it live up to the premise. Often the writer will include examples of their own work, and the author isn’t usually that well-known. But the excerpt was intriguing, so why not? It was a slow day.
The article was awesome, perhaps for two reasons. First, the author, Charlie Jane Anders, put a fair amount of analytical thought into the piece. I’m an analyst by nature and profession and I recognize a good framework when I see one. Props. Second, she uses real-life examples from lots of existing books and stories — not her work, not made up openings, actual openings. Some classic, some newer, but real-life examples. And while it talks about the importance of it for short-stories, it works for novels just as well.
And, like other newish writers, I can often suffer from the same problem that plagues us all…starting a story too early. One of the most common things in the “biz”, according to professional editors, is that we writers get stuck in our heads, and we want to provide all the context up to the start of the actual story. Do we need to see Luke Skywalker growing up on Tatooine? Do we need to see his whole life before we arrive? No, we need to see him meet the droids, the moment his life changes. The moment the story starts. (Unless you’re George Lucas and want to go back and write several prequels!). And professional editors frequently want to delete the first three chapters of every first novel they get. So that the story starts when the action starts, not the backstory. Drop that in later, they say. If you have to.
So her structure has seven types of openings:
- Scene-setting — good for setting a mood or establishing that the “place” is really important;
- Establishing conflict — things start with a bang, but hard to maintain that momentum, and there’s no lead-up or natural build…current TV shows LOVE this one — show a big huge scene, someone’s about to die !!!! and then, a pause, followed by a normal scene with the subtitle ’12 hours earlier! Most of the time, it doesn’t work for me, but there’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Cause and Effect” that starts with a quick series of events leading to the Enterprise being totally destroyed, and then the story resets to an earlier time. It was totally a “WTF” moment and is one of the best establishing scenes of the seven-year series;
- Mysterious world — starting with something somewhat fantastical for wording as if it is commonplace…this often happens with fantasy where they want to show the reader from word one that magic is normal and prevalent;
- Third-person narration — I’m not always fond of this one, breaking the wall between character and reader, but there are so many degrees of this, I’m not sure I would lump it together;
- First person narrator — I like this one least of all as it is often so badly done, yet when it is done well, it sings;
- Dialogue — risky as it has to spark immediately;
- Puzzler — I’m not entirely sure this is a separate category on its own, more a combination of two other elements above.
The author includes the pros and cons of each along with examples, and it has stayed with me in my bookmark folder for a long time. Worth a read if you want to jumpstart some openings…