Sorry today’s post is coming so late! (And, you know, after midnight. So technically Thursday.)
Things are really hectic right now. On the upside: The Night Before Our Stars is tomorrow! (Or today? I never know what to say this time of night.)
Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post about how to write openings that keep readers reading.
I’ll admit, I am not the best person to talk to you about how to open a novel. I am notoriously bad at finding the right place to start, or introducing characters in unique and interesting ways, or any of the number of other things that make for good opening pages.
However, I do seem to be halfway decent at one thing: keeping people reading.
Your opening scene has a lot of work to do. It should introduce your lead cast (or set up for meeting them), give an idea for both the type of story and where it’ll take place, and give readers a feel for the tone and overall conflict that they’re stepping into. On top of this, it has to do all this in such a way that gets them to read on to the next scene, and this (in my personal opinion) is the most important part.
1. Don’t let your characters play nice.
While generally you’ll want to open your story in the sort of “before” period (aka: before things go crazy), it’s also important to remember that readers don’t want to watch things go right. That’s boring. You haven’t earned a reader sitting through things going right yet (that’s your reward for putting your characters through hell–nothing should go right until the end of the novel).
So: just because everything hasn’t exploded yet, doesn’t mean something can’t be wrong. The easiest way of doing this is to build tension between your characters. (This is also a great way to develop personalities early on. If something’s eating at your protagonist, and it’s causing tension between her and those around her, it shows the reader a lot about who they are. The opening chapter of Divergent by Veronica Roth does a good job of this one.)
2. Let the conflict boil.
This sounds simple, but something I’ve seen a lot in manuscripts I’ve critiqued is writers introducing problems in the first chapter (great!) then resolving them before chapter two (not so great).
Prepare yourself: this is about to turn into a prolonged and convoluted metaphor on boiling water.
So, let’s say you put water (characters) in a pot (your story). Then you turn the burner on. The heat from the burner represents the problems your characters must face. The more problems your characters face, the closer they–like the water–get to boiling. And boiling is good.
Boiling is conflict. Boiling is enthralling. Boiling = the reader not being able to stop reading.
So, why would you get your water all hot and boiling–then turn the burner off? If you do that, you can’t cook your delicious pasta (yeah, I don’t know; I lost myself like half a metaphor ago).
Basically: If your chapter ends with the immediate conflict resolved and no other conflict already in action to replace it, the reader will lose interest.
Fiction is conflict. Something must always be wrong. If you don’t have any conflict left, then you’re at the end of the story.
Examples of openings that let their conflict boil: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater and The Maze Runner by James Dashner.
3. Give your characters purpose.
This goes hand-in-hand with utilizing conflict in your opening. (Notice a theme yet?) The next worse thing after not having residual conflict at the end of your opening is not having a purposeful protagonist.
Don’t let your characters sit by on the sidelines. If your protagonist doesn’t play a key role in your opening scene, either you’re not writing the right scene or you’re not writing the right protagonist.
Get your characters up and doing something. We don’t want passive observers. Movement and decision-making are the lifeblood of a successful opening.
(Unless, of course, you’re writing about someone who starts out a passive observer and must throughout the story learn to be something more. In which case your best bet is to draw attention to the downsides of passivity in your opening, rather than having your character right away making decisions and doing things.)
A couple of my favorite novels that open with purposeful characters are Across the Universe by Beth Revis and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
4. End with juicy information.
A super easy way to get the reader to continue past the first scene or chapter is to have the protagonist reveal some sort of surprising, unexpected information at the end of it. Maybe he’s been hiding in the shadows all day and boom: turns out he’s a vampire. Or she’s been going on and on about how delicious the toast her dad used to make was and actually, by the way, someone murdered him and they never found out who. (Or you could also instead find out she’s a toaster. Who knows. It’s going on 2:00 AM and my brain shut off like four hours ago.)
I remember I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter doing this well.
5. End on a cliffhanger.
Ending with a cliffhanger is different from ending with an info drop, because it requires throwing something out there that your protagonist isn’t expecting. Maybe her plane veers towards the ground or the police are on his doorstep with handcuffs and no hints as to why he’s under arrest.
A cliffhanger puts the reader and the protagonist on the same level. They’re both experiencing the shock of what’s happening. It opens opportunity for the reader to sympathize with the protag, and if the reader connects with your protag, s/he’s much more likely to flip to the next page.
Great cliffhanger endings to openings: Of course The Hunger Games. And, to continue with the Ally Carter examples, Heist Society has a pretty solid cliffhanger at the end of Chapter One.
Do you have tips for writing openings that keep the reader reading? Let me know in the comments!