The irony here is I have no good opening for this post. I’ve been thinking about this one for a couple of days and realized a few things. One is that outside of screenplays, where the first ten pages are of vital importance, the writers I hang out with and I haven’t talked much about the process of crafting our openings. Close on that was the realization that I don’t really have a full grasp of my process for openings. So bear with me if this is less how-to and more theory but I do have some thoughts and tips.
First of all, don’t worry about it, at least at first. If you come up with a killer first line that’s great. Even better if it flows seamlessly into an eyeball bursting opening. That will probably come later though after your first draft is complete. It’s hard enough to get started on a new piece without the added pressure of a strong opening.
If I stare at the screen for more than a few seconds I just start with stage direction. That’s also usually the weakest opening so you’re probably going to change it. I went through a bunch of my old stuff (just the first few lines) and found this gem–“The black Jag slid smoothly into the parking space marked Caleb Sinclair.” Blech. The rest of the paragraph (keep in mind this is the first paragraph) is all Caleb getting out of his car. It’s a short little story from one of our word exercises and it’s actually pretty decent. But that opening would be the first to get the cleaver.
Direction is fine if it serves as a hook. The first line from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series–“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” That’s better. Still telling us something is happening but it’s not shoe leather. In one line we have a protagonist, antagonist, and setting. But more importantly the reader has questions. Who is the man in black and why is he running? Who is the gunslinger and why is he chasing? You have to keep reading to find out. Nobody gives a damn about why the black Jag is parking and we know who’s in there because I told you. (Seriously, that’s weak.)
So that’s another goal. Try to create more questions than you answer. Think of your opening like a movie trailer. You have to set the tone and give just enough away that they want the rest. Give too much away and they think there’s no reason to keep reading, they have it figured out already. If it helps think of your reader as unwilling to go on and you have to trick him.
And finally a genuine how-to tip. Going over some old stuff showed me a bunch of weak first draft openings. Some of the second draft ones could be a little stronger too. But I did notice one technique crop up rather frequently that always seemed to work well. A single line of unattributed dialog. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s being said because you automatically wonder who said it and what the heck they’re talking about. Pow! Instant engagement and they’re hooked for at least the next line or two. Make ’em count.