September 23rd, 2006

A couple of conversations in various places on the net over the past week have prompted me to continue Kate Elliott’s discussion of openings. For purposes of discussion, here are some thoughts on what seems to work in today’s market. (My focus here is on novels.)

A hundred years ago, leisurely openings were de rigueur–especially when presented either in first person or by an omniscient narrator. It could, and did, take several pages just to meander over the time and setting.

Nowadays people want the story to get moving right away. There are three openings that I see a lot of in workshops that I think are tough to pull off. These are The Big Bang, On the Run, and The Book of Genesis.

“The Big Bang” is when the writer throws the big conflict of the entire book at the reader at once. Sometimes this opening is successful, but more often it seems that big stakes openings, especially battlefields and sacrifices and so forth, are tough because the reader has had no time to invest any interest in the characters. They don’t know why the blood and guts are flying, they don’t care about anybody, and so the effect is “too much too soon.”

The same with “On the Run.” This is the in medias res opening, wherein the action is already going on, and thus the reader not only has to pick up the story and characters, but has to assemble the clues to why and wherefore. This opening can be a real challenge, because it’s not always obvious who the reader is supposed to remember–which signposts are background painting and which are clues. When the backstory is filled in while characters are running, it takes an especially deft hand to keep the reader interest just above the frustration level, because such an opening requires an especially steep learning curve. Also, there is the temptation–and I think this is almost always a tough one to get readers past–to open with a “teaser” in medias res scene, then stop the action dead before the reader has a chance to gain any real interest–and loop in a long explanation of backstory. This looped-in datadump before anyone wants it has a deadly effect on pacing and interest-building. Again, it can be done, but it takes a very skilled pen to open with a bit of action among new names and faces, thrust the reader by force backward into years of history, and then restart again in the present.

Finally, we talked here before about “The Book of Genesis” opening in a discussion about Prologues. (And this one almost always is a prologue.) There have been too many books opening with the history of the Elder Gods, when everything was marvelous and good except for that one mean brother or sister who slinks around from the gitgo, does something nasty, gets tossed into the godly klink for a few hundred or thousand years–and then gets out, swearing vengeance and all manner of Evile. So the story is about who gets to whack him/her back into the slammer with their ring/sword/power of Destiny. This used to be a popular opening, but its very popularity is now making it a tough sell.

Traditional openings that are easier on writer and reader include Waking Up, Discovery, the Interview, the Conference, the Journey . This Journey is not the Quest, but a headlong action scene to get some small goal accomplished that lets us see setting, character, some motivation and need: let’s say a big war is imminent, and in fact that’s the main conflict of the story. The Journey opening is the main character’s desperate run around her village packing to leave, where we meet everyone, and assemble clues about what’s coming as we follow her, before the bad guys even get on the scene and kick off the main action. By then, we should care about our heroine and her doughty friends.

Waking Up is an old cliche, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be used–if something happens. If the protagonist finds on waking that he is not where he went to sleep. Or if she wakes up and finds someone on the next pillow who wasn’t there before. Or he wakes up and discovers that when he sneezes, the opposite wall explodes. But waking up and then meandering through bath, dressing, breakfast, and a normal morning is as leisurely (and as deadly for attracting readers) as the old-fashioned openings, unless the writer has an extraordinarily stylish voice. (This especially goes for opening with Dreams of Portent before we’ve even met a character.)
“Discovery“ is related to that last one. The character begins with a mundane action–briefly setting the scene and time–and then Discovers the Magic Tieclip. Or a secret power. Or overhears a conversation between a brace o’ bad guys.

“Interview” and “Conference” are not action scenes, they are Reaction openings, but they are great for getting data across. Interview is when two characters open by discussing whatever–again, it need not be the main conflict, but it has to be some kind of conflict. A small but urgent need is like a simple fishing pole and hook nipping in the small fish–it gets the action going faster than the Big Kahuna, which requires a complicated ship-load of data and explanation. So, for example, if the story is a big war, two minions are standing in the castle hallway trying to figure out who has to take the message in to the Evil King. They argue, and as they argue, we learn a lot about the world and the characters before the Evil King learns that the Hero’s land is not going to pay their triple taxes this year, which requires him to send his Army of Darkness to lay waste to the world.

The “Conference” opening is pretty much the same as the “Interview” but includes many characters. This one can verge on being problematical, like the “On the Run”–but if the camera begins with a couple of characters and then gradually widens to add others, as well as facts needed to kick off the story, it can be a successful opening. In fact, this opening was made famous by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice–we don’t get a huge, leisurely ramble, but we begin with a Conference. This opening is astonishingly brisk: the question of whether or not the father will call on the new young man in town introduces the heroine’s family with a small problem that seques beautifully into the main thrust of the book.

18 Responses to “Openings–Types”

  1. Carol Bergon 23 Sep 2006 at 3:41 pm

    A great list. Lots to think about.

    I might add to these (or squeeze between your definitions) The Event That Changes Everything. The master buys the slave. The man is released from prison. The visitor arrives. This opening can certainly incorporate the Interview or Conference, but I don’t think of it as strictly reactive, because the precipitating action itself is the opening shot. Or perhaps this is a subset of The Journey, though it is not a part of a continuing action. Something Happens. Here. Now. We meet characters and learn of them from their involvement in this Event and we learn of world structures and such through all the usual means of narrative, dialogue, and action.

    Then again, I might just be blowing smoke and trying to hold your (excellent) existing definitions too close.


  2. Mitch Wagneron 23 Sep 2006 at 4:02 pm

    This Journey is not the Quest, but a headlong action scene to get some small goal accomplished that lets us see setting, character, some motivation and need…

    Standard opening to James Bond movies.

    Damon Knight used to have a catchphrase to describe openings that were too much in media res: “Wheet! The bullet flew past the hero’s ear!” It’s a bad opening because we don’t know who the hero is yet, and we don’t care that he’s getting shot at.

  3. Sherwood Smithon 23 Sep 2006 at 5:06 pm

    Carol: I do agree in general, but because we define the opening of a story (if not the book) as the moment when something happens I tend to include your examples–the prison door opens, the master buys the slave–as under Discovery. It’s not really Discovery in the same case as finding the Magic Tieclip in the gutter–in other words, the surprise aspect of discovery–but more like the hero being given the Tieclip on his twentieth birthday, as he always expected. Nevertheless, the event definitely triggers the action, though (and this is where the discovery comes in) nobody knows it right at that moment. But the writer knows, which is why the story begins there.

  4. Sherwood Smithon 23 Sep 2006 at 5:09 pm

    Mitch: exactly right…but the example didn’t quite work because those openings were predicated on the assumption that the viewers already know who James is. So in effect they bring their investment to the movie before the credits even roll. Thus the story can begin with a bang, because we’re already panting to see Bond deal with action in his usual stylish fashion.

  5. Marie Brennanon 23 Sep 2006 at 7:01 pm

    Sometimes a well-known writer can get away with a problematic opening because they’re a better writer, and can make it work. But I’m increasingly of the (somewhat cynical, somewhat envious) opinion that sometimes, they can get away with it simply because the reader will cut them some slack and assume they’re going somewhere worthwhile. I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction lately, some of which seemed that way to me, but the example you made me think of (since it’s a novel) is Stross’ The Family Trade, which I just started reading. Sure, it’s got a hook paragraph about a guy on a horse with a machine gun trying to kill the main character later that day, but then it backs up to a Monday morning where she wakes up, gets dressed, brushes her teeth, doesn’t have time to do makeup, goes to work, etc. That goes on for a couple of pages before you get a real conflict again — one that doesn’t seem dropped in just to get your attention. I think there’s a willingness to trust a known writer that a newer one can’t get away with; the editor would just quit on page two and stuff a form letter in the envelope.

  6. Sherwood Smithon 23 Sep 2006 at 7:30 pm

    Marie; it’s not cynical at all, if you look at it from a purely readerly POV. The reader here again is bringing reader investment to the book–in this case to the author’s name. Readers who really like or have come to trust certain authors will indeed give them more time to get things going. Readers will give extra time to a new author if the subject matter is a favorite.  How many times have I heard the equivalent of “I don’t care how bad it is, it’s about vampires,” in a half-rueful tone. (And of course if the writer disappoints them too profoundly or too many times, this is how readers pass on to other authors).

    The bottom line is, our work (if we haven’t published, or nothing of ours has been read before by this reader) and the (new) reader are like strangers meeting for the first time. We don’t cut a stranger nearly the slack we do our best friend’s crazy brother if he’s known for being funny but he goes on about his sick parakeet, or our sweetie’s mom who is rude, or the boss who forces us to stand there and listen to his godawful jokes one more time. In each of these cases we have a different kind of investment–but investment is there. A stranger moans at us about a sick bird, or is rude, or bores us with interminable jokes, and we walk away, we don’t linger and suffer it out, hoping things will improve.

  7. Mitch Wagneron 23 Sep 2006 at 7:40 pm

    I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite novels ever: Fevre Dream, the historical dark fantasy by George R.R. Martin. It certainly starts with a perfect example of the Conference opening: the protagonist, Abner Marsh, has been summoned to dinner by a mysterious man who has a business proposition for him. As we get to the dinner, we are introduced to Marsh, whom we learn is a giant of a man, a formerly prosperious businessman fallen on hard times due to terrible luck. We are introduced to the period and settting — the Mississippi riverboat trade in the 1850s. And, finally, we’re introduced to York, an extremely pale, eccentric gentleman who only comes out at night and dines at midnight. (I wonder if Martin’s readers at the time the novel was published, 1982, would have instantly known the sort of man York is, as readers in 2006 would certainly know — as I’m sure you’ve already figured out. Martin doesn’t come out and explicitly tell us until well past page 100.)

    Prior to Fevre Dream, I re-read a bunch of the Spenser private-detective novels by Robert B. Parker. The Spenser novels almost always start, as detective novels often do, with a Conference or Interview: The detective meets his client.

    Marie Brennan – Interesting. So you think The Family Trade appeals to readers who already know who Stross is — at least by reputation — and trust him to get them into a story worth reading?

    I think that opening largely succeeds because of Strauss’s prose style, and the power of his imagery.

  8. Marie Brennanon 23 Sep 2006 at 9:14 pm

    The cynicism comes in when I see editors saying, “oh, we’re just looking for good stories, regardless of the name at the top.” Sure, no doubt that’s true to an extent, but the name can buy you more of a chance to prove that your story’s good.

    (This isn’t, btw, sour grapes complaining of the “nobody will buy my stories, it’s a conspiracy” type. I’m pleased with my success so far, though of course I wouldn’t say no to more.)

    As for Mitch’s question, I didn’t find the prose or imagery all that compelling in those first bits. I’m about halfway in now, and enjoying myself, but I think it picked up about thirty or thirty-five pages in, and the story really found its stride in Part Two.

  9. Sherwood Smithon 23 Sep 2006 at 9:24 pm

    Marie: yes, it’s been noted a lot that a crummy story by Famous Author will get bought over a nifty story by I.M. Unknown if they happen to have similar elements. But that gets us into the market aspect (which name will sell more copies?) which kinda derails us a bit on openings. (Though it’s worth discussing when it comes to the vagaries of editors, markets, and sales numbers.)

  10. […] 12 – Openings–Types “A hundred years ago, leisurely openings were de rigueur–especially when presented either in first person or by an omniscient narrator. It could, and did, take several pages just to meander over the time and setting.” Sherwood Smith on openings of novel (tags: openings hooks literature genre sf scifi fantasy fiction science tips howto advice authors novels writing) […]

  11. Jellyn Andrewson 23 Sep 2006 at 10:23 pm

    What about the following type of opening?

    It was cold, rainy night in October and the Lady Evelyn’s screams echoed throughout the mansion for hours before she finally gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.

    I tend to see this a lot in rp character backgrounds. For some reason the weather is always mentioned.

  12. Sherwood Smithon 23 Sep 2006 at 11:37 pm

    Jellyn: mentioning the weather is a part of setting. Sometimes there’s too much weather, but your sentence there does a lot of jobs. As for what type of opening, I’d call it Discovery–the baby boy being the ‘discovery’.

  13. kateelliotton 24 Sep 2006 at 12:08 am

    THis is a fabulous post, and I particularly like the names for the different types of opening.

    Marie, I agree that there is – can be – a huge element of trust involved when we sit down to read depending on what we ourselves as readers bring to the table. If I pick up a book with a preconceived notion of how it is going to fit into my reading tastes, I may judge it more harshly or less harshly depending on the circs. I think it takes a strong soul indeed to resist the siren call of any taint of prejudgement based on outside factors. How often have we heard a book condemned, or praised, by someone who hasn’t read it?

    Although this subject is tangential to that of openings.

  14. Marie Brennanon 24 Sep 2006 at 12:25 pm

    Tangential, but not egregiously so, since the opening of a story (short or novel) is where the writer and reader negotiate with one another, and trust gets established or doesn’t. It’s also the “begin as you mean to end” thing — I hate it when I read something that starts off with a bit of conflict that turns out to be irrelevant to what’s going on, just because that conflict looked more immediately compelling.

  15. Wenamunon 24 Sep 2006 at 2:46 pm

    Some opening categories are of the “Don’t try this at home, kids; I’m a professional!” sort. :)

    There’s another sort of opening, probably not common in print these days, that I can’t think of a catchy name for. Oh, let’s try calling it the Antiques Roadshow, in which the opening focus is on the description of an inanimate object, still life, building, etc. before (one hopes) it broadens out to other things.

  16. Mitch Wagneron 24 Sep 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Watched the movie The Wedding Crashers this morning. It starts with the two protagonists, played by Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson, working at their jobs mediating divorces. They’re attempting to hammer out an agreement between an affluent and hateful couple, played by Rebecca De Mornay and Dwight Yoakum.

    We never come back to any of this stuff again. We never see the married couple, and there’s no further reference to the protagonists’ careers at all.

    But the opening is funny. It pulls us into the story. And, most importantly, it establishes the protagonists as a pair of extraordinary baloney artists who are so in synch with each other that they finish each others’ sentences. They are more than half con-men, they don’t care how hokey a line is if the mark will buy what they’re selling. And yet they also deliver on their promises — by the end of this little vignette, the couple has arrived at an agreement to separate their property, and the divorce can move forward.

    All these qualities in the protagonists’ personalities are essential to keeping the movie going forward when we get to the real action.

    The Farrelly Brothers, who created There’s Something About Mary, demonstrate that your protagonist can do hateful things if he shows the audience he’s also compassionate and has good character. And a good place to start with that is at the very beginning. If your hero is going to cold-bloodedly kill 100 people in Scene 2, maybe it’s a good idea to have him rescue a puppy in Scene 1.

  17. L.N. Hammeron 25 Sep 2006 at 11:51 am

    I like “the Antiques Roadshow” as a name for that sort of thing.

    *waves to Wenamun*


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