Monday, June 10, 2013

The Power & Potential Of Openings

Good morning.

That's it. That's my opening for you today.

Or, maybe those three lines are my opening.

Does it matter? Sure it matters. And today we're going to talk about what openings can do, what they shouldn't do and how important they are. Now I'm going to frame this discussion mostly around fiction, but you can easily swap "game setting text" or "non-mechanics rules text" when I talk about chapter or book openings.

What does an opening do?
To my thinking, it does three things:

  1. Establishes: the setting, character(s) that we're going to follow or the tone of the story
  2. Sets an expectation for how intense (physically or emotionally) the story is going to be
  3. Interests and engages the reader to keep reading
Let's talk about each of them in turn.

Establishing setting, character(s) or tone - However you start the story, this is the first thing the reader sees. This is your first opportunity to both show off your writing chops as well as introduce the things you want to show off. And yes, I mean show off like "Look at me and my awesome word-skillz" because that's one of your roles as a writer, so don't be shy about getting up on that soapbox and being in the spotlight. 

The setting is where you can talk about the stage where all the action is going to take place. Maybe not the specific locale where action unfolds, maybe you're introducing New York City but this particular story takes place in an apartment building within the City, but you need to start somewhere, so why not show us the big picture and zoom in?

No, don't tell me the ancient and dense backstory of marriages, wars, soldiers and commerce that established your setting, unless that information is going to prove so incredibly vital to the current-time story you're telling -- I'm looking at you, fantasy author -- we seriously do not need "to get the whole history" if you're just telling me the story of a farmer-turned-questing-knight. Long histories like that can be both incredibly dull and purely masturbatory. Yeah, it's great that you spent so much time mapping out kingdoms and families and histories, but when are we getting to the story of the rest of the book? 

The character(s) we're going to follow are likely the protagonists or antagonists. I'm not saying every sentence needs to be about them, that you can't mention the barista or the bank teller, but by the time the opening is over, we should meet or at the very least have an introduction to the protagonist of the story. This also applies to antagonists, if you want to tell a villain-facing story. (And if you're telling me a story where the badguys are goodguys, then we need to be clear about that up front)

The tone of the story is how the story is going to read for the next three-hundred or so pages. If we're in first-person, is the narrator snarky? Jaded? Weary? If we're in third-person, how close are we to the action and the characters (psychic distance)? Is the exposition conveying a serious tone? Should I be laughing? Should I be worried - although it's truly hard to be worried about characters we've met only sentences earlier.

Sets an expectation of intensity - If you open the story with a bang, either literally or figuratively, it's like cranking the stereo up to the eleven at the start of an album. You're setting the bar pretty high, and leading people to think that you're either going to continue that pace or else it will be really hard to maintain.

For a minute let's talk about a hypothetical SF novel. Let's say the first scene is about a planet blowing up. On most scales, that's a huge deal. Especially if there are badguys and they used a superlaser to do it. It makes it sound like those villains are pretty bad news. And what about the next scene? Well, as a reader, I'm going to wonder what happens next - do they start threatening another planet? Do the good guys launch a counterattack? When the bar is set so high, the expectation is that you're only going to ramp up.

We get that from exposure to other media, that the best is yet to come, and that as a thing (a show, a movie, a book) progresses, it's going to intensify, reaching a climax much further along in the story. It's a serious let-down to find out that the best part of the book is the first ten pages.

Because of the expectation that it's only going to get better, many stories may start with a big event, but then afterward, cut to a smaller event - using the first event as an introduction to the character or the world. This is an "opening gambit" and is regularly used in television. We see the heroine already engaged in something, usually the big climax of a work we've stumbled into, so we get to watch her dispatch the badguys and escape, just before the title and credits. Then we come back to the show and she's given her assignment for the episode. In this fashion, you can intro the character and the world, but not have to worry about continually escalating in order to engage the audience.

Interests or engages the reader to keep reading - A successful connection with the audience means that they keep reading the story because they want to know what happens next. An introduction is the first time to make this happen, and the events of the introduction, the components more specifically, are the start of this need to know what happens next.

An opening should be interesting. Just like meeting people, the first impression you make is critical, and helps the other person figure out if they want to actually talk to you, or if they're going find every reason under the sun to get away from you. ("Oh you have to go take your cat to the pet chiropractor? Okay, see you later then!")

An opening should be a hook for people. There's an advantage to an opening - it doesn't have anything that precedes it, so it's not competing for any in-story attention. That's the benefit for going first. If you set a really good example, the other sections are going to try and be better. It's a very interesting internal competition, at least on the reader's mind-side of things.

You want them to keep reading. So keep writing. Keep telling the story. Tell the ups and the downs, the slow parts and the fast parts, the scary bits and the sweet bits.

What doesn't an opening do?
An opening is not a middle. The middle of the story is, well, the middle. What that means is that the opening isn't a bridge between things (because we don't know what happened before the book started, and even if you tell us all about it via flashback and narration, there's still some measure of incompleteness because we want to draw our own conclusions). Openings lever us into the story and the world and squeeze us into meeting the characters, either while they're doing cool things already or just before the cool things kick off.

An opening is a not a conclusion. Even if you're telling a story backwards, and we see the after effects of some big event, and you spend the rest of the book showing us the big event, then end the book with how the big event came to be, the ACTUAL opening of the book is still the ending of the story - all we're doing to moving forward in reverse time and order. So, yes, the ending of the book could be the opening of the book if we reshuffled the scene order, in theory - but that's a pretty tough thing to pull off casually.

An opening is not the spot for an author rant. I don't mean that author should break the fourth wall and  address the reader directly. I mean the author shouldn't launch into a manifesto about how pine nuts are a vast conspiracy or how landscapers are secretly placing microphones among the shrubbery, unless your book IS a manifesto. But if we're talking fiction, then these pages you want me to pay for and reader, they should be about the story. Sure, you can totally insert commentary about issues into the story: the characters can have opinions that mirror your own, the plot can parallel something that happened in your own life.

How important is my opening?
If you've come this far in the post and you're expecting some percentage or some specific number, you won't find it. There's no magic formula to determine how critical your opening is, or how much energy you need to put into it. It IS important, since it invites the reader into the world you've created, but it's not *more* important than the climax where your threads all come together or the resolution where the rewards and desserts are dispensed.

Should I worry over my opening?
You mean like, "Should I worry and obsess over my opening so that I'm always re-tooling it, practically paralyzed by thoughts of whether or not it's good and never really making progress into the deeper parts of the story?

No.

I'll say that again.

No.

Yes, the opening is where people start the book, but if you keep toying with it, when are you going to tell the rest of the story? And if you spend so much time on the intro, will you spend that much time on the other parts of the story, or are you going to let there be some kind of emotional or pacing drop-off because the post-opening chapters don't live up to the hype?

So what can I do?
Get the whole story out of your head and down onto paper or the monitor. Just get it all down, you can get it edited, you can reshuffle the pieces later, but get it all out first - yes, even if you think some parts are awful. Develop the discipline to tell the whole story and then put it under the knife, rather than working piecemeal.

And if you do all that and you're still stuck, send me an email. I'll help you however I can.

Happy writing. We'll talk later this week, with more Editing Out In The Open.