Openings: What happens next?

November 6th, 2006

An interesting discussion came up with someone I do a lot of writing talk with. She’s been studying openings very closely, and has come up with some extremely fine observations on what works and what doesn’t in genre, but she will choose the time and place when she shares the insights she’s still gathering.

But this particular discussion came up generally, over on Hatrack River.  (I haven’t read the discussion–no time, though I do have an interest–only her summary.)

The topic was of pertinence especially to genre writers, I thought, and that is, readers at the beginning of a new book want less to know what is happening than to find out what is happening next.

It took me some time to wrap my tiny brain round this concept, but once I did, I thought, hoo boy, this is a toughie, at least for me.  Especially at the start of a sequel in a roman fleuve storyarc. What is meant is this: so many of us are anxious to get the reader oriented in our world, and how it works, that we tend to shove too much up at the front.  We don’t want to risk losing the reader, but also, we are so invested in our world and its workings that all our details are fascinating to us.  Until the reader gets invested, it’s just more detail to try to figure out, while one is also trying to pick up character clues and hints about what’s going on.  Thus a reader might get overwhelmed with stuff that will hopefully mean a lot to them as they get into the story–but at the beginning, one doesn’t know what’s important and what is just setting or backdrop  Gulp.  Holding hand up in guilt.

This is a particular bugbear for sequels in genre, because we can’t just blithely add in a quick phrase here and there: “Mr  Detective Hero, who was raised on the streets of New York…”  “Ms. Ongoing Love Interest, a professional masseuse…”  Each quick phrase provides us with braink-links to all kinds of data, but similar phrases added to the opening of book two in The Dragon-Vampires in Space trilogy (“Captain Thundernuts of the sporble-craft Stenchpuff…”  “S’llot’ta the zipril of famed Klusterduk”) don’t clue us in to anything–just pile on the questions.

Readers want to know what’s happening and who it’s happening to.  That’s first.  And then why, and where.  Trying to remember that now as my mantra, and I thought I’d share it and see what others think.

27 Responses to “Openings: What happens next?”

  1. David Louis Edelmanon 06 Nov 2006 at 4:25 pm

    I’d be very interested in hearing said friend’s opinions on openings, because that’s precisely the issue I’m facing right now. I’ve been spending the past few days radically rethinking the opening chapters of my own book 2 in order to make it more comprehensible.

    My own conclusion is that it’s much more important for the reader to emotionally reconnect with the characters than it is to fill in the plot points. (Not that you can’t do both, of course — but for me, I’ve found that cutting the story down to the core helps.) I think that’s close to the same conclusion you listed above, Sherwood, if not the exact same.

    (Btw, I did a rather involved post on my own blog a while back about the writing of sequels, if anyone cares to read it.)

  2. Constance Ashon 06 Nov 2006 at 6:10 pm

    I always think the real opening gets written after you’ve gotten into the characters, action and the world, not when you begin writing the story.

    Hey, it works for me, every damned time. I have never started my novel when began writing it, where it opened.

    Except once.

    The opening came to me perfectly in a blinding flash. One of my primaries had just waked up, returning to his waking life’s, crapulous circumstances, and being the age he was, he masturbated, and all his fantasies and so on, told us who he was, why he was there, etc.

    I was in shock that I’d done this. But I do think it worked very well. There are other flaws in the novel, some very large, but that wasn’t one of them.

    Um, I made sure I vetted it with, um, certain people to whom I’m close, to be sure I got all this right, not being, um, you know, a guy, of his age group.

    Love, C.

  3. Sherwood Smithon 06 Nov 2006 at 7:44 pm

    David: your second and third seem to be to be the same thing: what is termed a roman fleuve–a long story, necessarily chopped into publishable bits. It’s a long story arc. This is as opposed to episodic series, like Star Trek, which basically deposit you more or less back at the starting point after the adventure. So Captain Kirk never marries any of his loves, Spock never retires back to Vulcan to fix his personal life, the Enterprise’s two year mission or whatever it was goes on and on.

    And wow, these openings are indeed cursed hard. I do agree that character emotion as well as something happening (to which the characters react) is got to be ahead of worldbuiding and motivation, etc, but at some point all that extra stuff does have to go in, and learning to get it in without jetting the pacing is a toughie.

    Constance; I envy you having the perfect opening come to you. Indeed, I write it once, I rewrite it over and over as I write the rest, then when I’m done I have the REAL writing ahead–and half the time I have to get rid totally of what I’ve rewritten 475,786 times.

  4. […] 2 – Openings: What happens next? “…readers at the beginning of a new book want less to know what *is* happening than to find out *what is happening next*.” (tags: genre tips advice author action plot openings novels stories fiction writing) […]

  5. Constance Ashon 06 Nov 2006 at 10:29 pm

    Well, it only happened once!

    But I’ve become convinced that the real opening only begins to emerge after I’ve written 3 ‘keeper’ chapters.

    As the re-writing goes on and on as the novel progresses (this is the same process too for short fiction, and more often than one might think, with non-fiction too) more and more stuff in the front gets jettisoned, because its rightful place further on arrives.

    This is an obsessive re-writer’s method — which I am. Which cuts down production a lot though.

    Love, C.

  6. kateelliotton 06 Nov 2006 at 10:38 pm

    Dave, you and I seem to be going through the same issues right now, as I also ended up throwing out about 150 pages, including what were the first 100 pages of book two, in favor of a new approach focused specifically on the reader’s connection with the protags.

    Strangely, Sherwood, I had a similar discussion recently although it wasn’t specifically about openings but about narrative drive. That is, that (as simple as this may seem) what keeps people reading or viewing is how much they are hooked into wanting to know ‘what happens next’.

  7. Sherwood Smithon 07 Nov 2006 at 1:32 am

    Kate: I’ve got an ongoing dialogue on a couple of fronts about that. (And the prologue–worked over a couple zillion times) to book two in you-know-what just got axed today, except for a single line, which goes into chapter four.

  8. Stacyon 09 Nov 2006 at 6:16 pm

    I just had the great good fortune to attend a workshop with Donald Maass, where all the Libras in the room had their first line given a yea or nay by the attendees. The first day of the seminar Donald handed out the “no backstory in first 30 pages!” edict. Half of those who gave out their first lines on day two had spent most of the night hacking away at their draft, deleting backstory. And the new first lines were great! (Mine was awful, btw.) I think that what hooks a writer into a story is just not the same thing that hooks a reader (more’s the pity.) When I’m writing, I need to know all of what’s going on, but when I’m reading, I need to have something to discover later that I don’t know now to keep going. That’s the opinion of this struggling little first timer, anyway.

  9. Charleson 09 Nov 2006 at 7:38 pm

    I’ve had the same opening scene to one of my stories since I first came up with it a long time ago. And now that I’ve been working on flushing the story and characters out, I found myself realizing that, as much as the opening is a convenient way to introduce two of the story’s main characters, it isn’t realistic enough. One character, a lord, arrives from sea to meet up with a sort of wizard, my other character. He debarks from his ship and hops on the wizard’s cart and off they go. I realized that in reality there would be no way this could happen so quickly. A person as powerful and prominant as the visiting lord would be met with ceremony and speeches.

    So, I tossed out the only opening I’ve ever had to this story. And oddly enough, it was the best thing I could have done. As a result, I not only had to find a new way to open the book, but in taking a new look at it, I realized that a significant event — one of the most significant in terms of shaping what will happen — was placed too far into the story and that this event needed to cap the new opening.

    For me, now that I have the new beginning, my biggest challenge is what happens next, at least from the perspective of how do I introduce the rest of the important characters in such a way that the first act of the book is not just a repeating sequence of introductions to someone important.

    Right now I am toying with two options:

    1. Use a recently introduced character to lead the reader to the next important character through an interaction these two will have.

    2. Introduce the next important character and lead the reader back to a character they have already been introduced to as a way to begin weaving the interconnectivity that all of the important characters will have with the overall story arc.

    The above is slowing the actual writing down, but it is helping to work out the feel of certain characters that have been little more than characters I’ve been meaning to get to.

    But, if the above helps me enhance the reader’s when am I going to get to what is going to happen that changes everything… expectations, then it will be worth the extra work and development.

  10. Chris Don 09 Nov 2006 at 9:31 pm

    Hi. My name is Chris and I belong to Lost Genre Guild. I saw your blog at Amyjane’s blogroll and wanted to stop by and say hi!

    Readers want to know what’s happening and who it’s happening to. That’s first. And then why, and where. Trying to remember that now as my mantra, and I thought I’d share it and see what others think

    That mantra is only good if you are not involved at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The mantra there is:

    The first draft stinks. Keep going.

    As a reader, though, I think there’s a bit of truth to what you have to say. I’m reading a sci fi book; I put it down when I started writing. The beginning was so confusing that I had to read the first 4 pages several times before I figured out what the authors were talking about. After that, the story got a lot better. I was determined to read it; if I wasn’t, I would have just put it in the Amvets pile.

    Again, great job on your post and I love your group blog.

    Sincerely, Chrisd

  11. David Louis Edelmanon 10 Nov 2006 at 12:49 am

    There’s one more aspect of writing an opening that I think is ultra-mega-crucial for a first time writer, and that’s this: since nobody knows who you are, that first 10 to 20 pages has to be absolutely dynamite.

    Agents and editors aren’t going to look at your alma mater and your work experience and read an extra few chapters to see if it gets better. They want to pick up something and be wowed right off the bat. That doesn’t necessarily mean action or pyrotechnics or lots of flowery words; it just means you’ve got to bring your “A” game to those first few pages, whatever your “A” game happens to be. Those opening pages just might be the most important ones you ever write.

  12. Sherwood Smithon 10 Nov 2006 at 1:07 am

    Stacy, that’s an interesting insight about what attracts a reader might not be what attracts a writer.

    One of the most frustrating aspects of all this is trying to figure out what will attract the widest range of readers. Many like a bit of action, but some prefer a moment of two of character development first…many like a laugh or two (I count myself in among these) but others want to see some stylish prose.

    We all talk about the importance of the “right” details, but for so many readers, definitions vary on what is right.


  13. Betsy Dornbuschon 10 Nov 2006 at 1:59 am

    The best openings have it all: setting, understandable, world-building slang which sticks you right in the middle of things, interesting characters doing interesting things, and a big “WHY??” bubble hanging over the reader’s head. I like that statement about what a writer wants and what a reader wants is too different things. I read so many openings, including my own, which are authorial discovery rather than reader discovery.

    We did a self-imposed famous first lines homework assignment for our crit group last week, and we decided the best first lines offer a big question in not so many words.

  14. Sherwood Smithon 10 Nov 2006 at 11:04 am

    Authorias discovery rather than reader discovery–that’s a great insight. So the next question is, how do we differentiate between them, when we are in full possession of the facts of the story: we do know what comes next, and why. We know, in short, all the mysteries the reader will discover: what we wrest with is laying down enough clues so that the reader, coming upon them, will not feel cheated.

  15. Stacyon 10 Nov 2006 at 11:50 pm

    I think it comes back to the common experience in the first postings – write an opening, finish the book, scrap the opening and do it over, now that you know everything and can concentrate on trying to build intrigue. That’s my basic plan right now – the more draft I complete the more I am unsatisfied with my beginning, which I’ve already written three times.

  16. k1on 12 Nov 2006 at 7:57 pm

    As a reader, i think there has to be a balance struck between too much story happening at once and too much world description in the beginning.

    If you get too much details in the beginning – too much about the lenght of the grass, the colour of the sky, the weather…your going to turn off your readers. (Why and where)

    If on the other hand, your plonked right into an action sequence without any knowledge of why that action sequence is happening that can be annoying. (Who and what)

    Personally, I see the first as being more annoying than the second, because on most occasions, if the second happens, usually its a “prologue” almost. Some unfinished battle that is to be resolved in the present….so undoubtedly at some point later in the text there will be a reference to what happened in the first chapter.

    The BIGGEST turn off for me is lots of names to grapple with. If I see more than 15 different names in the first chapter, it often confuses me. I think it happens because authors forget they are familiar with the world and the people..whereas readers are not. So when given 15 names of charachters, ten different names of places, then the names of the various races (assuming non human)…..your going to have to really concentrate on what your reading. Even taken notes especially if they are really long names! Either that or assume more will be made clear later on and take no note of the names of places.

    Just try it at home..take a world map, point to ten obscure different places. Then come back 10 minutes later and see how many you remember….maybe 5 I would imagine.

    Often I will discard the names of places in the first chapter, until such time as its proven to be germane to the story. That is to say, I don’t want to fill my head with goobleygook for no real reason.

    I hope I am not the only one that has that Or have I embarrassed myself now by admitting that?

  17. Sherwood Smithon 12 Nov 2006 at 8:24 pm

    k 1: No need for embarrassment–every reader’s response is legitimate, and no one is “right” to the exclusion of others. Or rather, everyone is right.

    Just for the purposes of discussion, I have no trouble with a big cast in books–as long as the cast is introduced with a line or two of visual description. I guess this is partly because I grew up reading massive 19th century novels with huge casts, and partially because I have a visual memory. I seldom remember the names just as names until way into the story, but I get visual flickers of characters as I read, so my reading experience is much like watching a movie, where I sort all the characters rapidly as the camera widens and then pans and then jumps shots.

    ( To shift for a moment to writer-self, I suspect this probably makes me a rotten writer for people who don’t like cast-of-thousand novels, sigh.)

    Anyway, the important thing is, that no opening is right or wrong, but the best we can do is try to spread the spectrum of reader response…and so your point is well taken about introducing too many characters at once.

  18. Betsy Dornbuschon 12 Nov 2006 at 11:14 pm

    how do we differentiate between them, when we are in full possession of the facts of the story

    well, to me authorial discovery is telling. That’s the big sign it’s there and that it won’t work for a reader.

    I come at it from the approach of showing behavior of a character that 1. defines them as a character 2. propels the story 3. raises questions that I’ve defined as integral and neccessary to the story. I agree that a lot of openings have to be scrapped and rewritten when you know more. But then, maybe you plotter-types don’t have that problem. :)

  19. kateelliotton 13 Nov 2006 at 5:18 pm

    k1: ah, yes. I do this myself (too many details v too few). In fact, as I write my new opening, which I rather like, I wonder how much information is too little information. I know the story so well and the situation so well that I can ‘read between the lines’ and do. That means that crucial information may be missing for the reader that I am not aware is missing. Augh!

  20. kateelliotton 13 Nov 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Right now I am toying with two options:

    1. Use a recently introduced character to lead the reader to the next important character through an interaction these two will have.

    2. Introduce the next important character and lead the reader back to a character they have already been introduced to as a way to begin weaving the interconnectivity that all of the important characters will have with the overall story arc.

    Charles, I really want to come back to this in detail later. How characters and situations are introduced is so important. I think both of these options can work well; it’s clear to me that you’re thinking this through in the right way.

    The key seems to be to make the linkage easy for the reader. Leaps are difficult; paths that join into other paths are easier.

  21. Charleson 15 Nov 2006 at 8:10 pm


    I look forward to any detail you will be able to add to the “how” of introducing characters. To expand upon this, I’m still working through which important characters will bear the extra burden of being a POV character.

    Must a POV character be introduced in the story as a POV character or does it work if an existing character suddenly becomes a POV character?

  22. kateelliotton 19 Nov 2006 at 9:32 pm

    You can certainly introduce a character who is not, in that particular scene, a point of view character, and then later make them a pov character. This can be a nice way of expanding your viewpoints while keeping the reader on familiar gorund (they already know who the person is). Also, of course, this technique allows you to see one character through the eyes of another, and then suddenly see that character through their own eyes – there’s no guarantee that the two viewpoints will have much in common.

  23. kateelliotton 19 Nov 2006 at 9:36 pm

    Here’s a forex:

    X has to deliver a secret package to the aide de camp of a notorious crime lord. X meets Y in an alley, and Y is rude and condescending to X, every bit the arrogant cruel-seeming lackey.

    X escapes the encounter unscathed and retraces his/her steps, thinking, ‘gods, I’m glad this is as close as I have to get to that horrible part of the underworld.’ (thus perhaps setting up future conflict when poor X will fall into the underworld due to circumstances beyond her/his control).

    The chapter changes. Now we scuttle with Y on the labyrinthine trail back to the lair of the crimelord, seeing the world from Ys’ pov. Maybe Y is just as obnoxious and arrogant as s/he seemed from X’s pov, but maybe Y is terrified, with family held hostage for Y’s good behavior, or maybe Y is an undercover agent, or a survivor of abuse, or a cashiered soldier fallen on hard times, or – and so on.

  24. Paulon 28 Nov 2006 at 4:32 am

    I’m curious on how this is going and what’s hapenning next, been following this thread for a few days now and hope for new replies

  25. Sherwood Smithon 28 Nov 2006 at 6:02 am

    I want to know too! This discussion has been happening in a couple of places, where writers are scrutinizing their openings, trying to determine if the given opening is what readers want to know as opposed to all the details the author wants to know–because the author is already aware of who did when when, how, where they are, etc. The readers needs to find that stuff out first, and then the details. But always why–beginning with the simplest things, and widening out.

    and Chris, way up top, thanks for stopping by.

  26. Charleson 05 Dec 2006 at 3:20 pm


    I mentioned earlier the two ways I have been toying with introducing important characters. Well, I’ve found myself in a dilemma where I’ve come up with a 3rd that seems to work best for introducing the main antagonist of the first book.

    After the new opening that I have written, the antagonist is introduced as a POV character. I’ve been stuck on this scene, however, since I started trying to write it. And I mean stuck! But I forced myself to do the only thing I could and that is to just write, no matter how bad it may come out or how off the point of what I am trying to accomplish it may seem. I trust myself enough to know that there will be something that will come out in the writing that will point me in the right direction.

    And, finally, it did. I realized why I have been stuck. I was caught in a spot where the reader is not only meeting the antagonist for the first time, but has no idea that this is even the antagonist at all, as there is no mention of this character up to this point in the new beginning I’ve written.

    I’ve been trying to think of a way to write this scene – which is pretty important overall — and not slow it down with all of the information the reader needs to know in regards to who this character is.

    One of my biggest challenges is keeping the narrative as 3rd person without injecting the all knowing author info dump on the reader. I want the story and character interactions to provide information, not me as the writer.

    However, without using the omni-voice, there hasn’t been an opportunity to inform the reader about the antagonist.

    And then, last night I finally realized that I had the perfect place to do so. I realized that my new beginning wasn’t finished after all. I realized that there is an important question one of the two characters at the beginning would ask the other once they realized what was about to happen. And I did not have the character ask the question!

    Now, I realize that in asking this question, part of the answer to it will inform the reader of this antagonist and what they suspect he will seek to do.

    And so, the scene that I have been struggling with suddenly has taken on a new life. It now has a tension level that was not there before.

    While all of the above may seem minor to some, for me, it is sort of like opening a door. By simply asking and answering a question, the scene that follows carries instant tension for the reader, without changing the way it is written because now the reader knows the intent of the character and, to a degree, what is at stake if he isn’t stopped in this one small thing.

    I guess it is far easier to introduce a protagonist without the reader having any foreknowledge of the character, than trying to introduce an antagonist this way.

  27. […] Openings: What Happens Next by Sherwood Smith […]

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