Openings: Creating the beginning of the story for the reader

I am honored to now be a KZB regular, and to be given the biweekly Words of Wisdom spot that Steve so ably started and ran for the past several months. He will be a hard act to follow, but I will do my best.

While this isn’t my first post at the Killzone, not even my first Words of Wisdom, I thought revisiting past posts on openings a fitting post for today: first chapters, effective openings, and focusing on crafting a compelling opening line or paragraph. Like Steve did, I see myself as laying the table for a discussion about these three nuggets of past wisdom today. You can read the full post for each excerpt via the date links.

So here are the basic points I’d like to reiterate about first chapters:

  • Start with action or dialogue. If you absolutely must begin with a description, make sure it is emotionally evocative from the main character’s viewpoint.
  • Leave backstory for later or weave it in with dialogue. Or drop it in a line or two at a time in the character’s head if it relates to the action.
  • Make sure all conversations serve a purpose.
  • Remember to include emotional reactions during dialogue between characters.
  • Make sure your characters are not talking about something they already know just so the reader can learn about it.
  • Keep the story moving forward.

–Nancy Cohen February 1, 2012

On my list, the following are crucial to providing an effective opening:

  • An initial ‘disruptive’ event that changes everything for the main protagonist: This event doesn’t need to be on the scale of a nuclear accident but it does need to profoundly affect the path the main character must take. It helps set up the plot, motivation and tension for the first chapters of the book.
  • Act/show first explain later: Often there’s way too much explanation and back story in the first few pages, which often serves to diminish tension and momentum. It’s better to show/have the protagonist act first and then wait to provide the reader with explanation. The only caution I would add is to beware of introducing actions that make no sense or which are completely unexplained to the reader which leads to…
  • Ground the book: It’s important to make sure the reader has a solid grounding in terms of the ‘world’ you have created. This means a solid foundation of time, place, character and voice. The reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s happening in the first few pages. An intrigued but well-grounded reader wants to read on, a disorientated reader may just put the book down.
  • Establish a strong, appropriate POV and ‘voice’ for the genre of book you are writing: Occasionally in our first page critiques we’ve found it hard to reconcile the ‘voice’ with the subject matter or tone of the book. Sometimes a POV ‘voice’ might sound like  ‘YA’ but the book doesn’t appears to be a young adult book. This is especially tricky when using a first person POV – as the ‘voice’ is the only point of reference for the reader.

–Clare Langley-Hawthorne November 25, 2013

We crime writers talk a lot about great hooks and how to get our readers engaged in the first couple pages. We worry about whether we should throw out a corpse in the first chapter, whether one-liners are best, if readers attention spans are too short for a slow burn beginning. This is especially true if you are writing what we categorize as “thrillers.”

But I’m tired of hooks. I’m thinking that the importance of a great opening goes beyond its ability to keep the reader just turning the pages. A great opening is a book’s soul in miniature. Within those first few paragraphs — sometimes buried, sometimes artfully disguised, sometimes signposted — are all the seeds of theme, style and most powerfully, the very voice of the writer herself.

It’s like you whispering in the reader’s ear as he cracks the spine and turns to that pristine Page 1: “This is the world I am taking you into. This is what I want to tell you. You won’t understand it all until you are done but here is a hint, a taste, of what I have in store for you.”

Which is why, today I am still staring at the blank page. We turned in our book last week to our new publisher and now it’s time to start the whole process all over again. I give myself a week off but then I try to get right back in the writing groove. I have an idea for a new book but that great opening?

Nothing has come to me yet. And I know my writer-self well enough by now that I know can’t move forward until I find just the right key to unlock what is to come. So here I sit, staring at the blinking curser, thinking that if I can only make good on my beginning’s promise, everything else will follow. Because that is what a great opening is to me: a promise to my reader that what I am about to give them is worth their time, is something they haven’t seen before, something that is…uniquely me.

Oh hell, I’ll let Joan Didion explain it. I have a feeling she’s given this a lot more thought than I have:

Q: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Q: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.

Didion gave this interview around the time she published her great memoir after her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking, the first line of which is: “Life changes fast.”

P.J. Parrish January 12, 2015


Now it’s your turn.

  1. What are your most important considerations in crafting an opening chapter? 
  2. In crafting effective openings?
  3. How do you make that opening line or paragraph be more than “just” a hook?
  4. Also, I’m very happy to consider requests for future Words of Wisdom topics you would like to see.

37 thoughts on “Openings

  1. Good morning, Dale. And welcome to the team of regular bloggers here at TKZ! I look forward to reading your every-other-Saturday Words of Wisdom posts.

  2. Welcome back again for the first time, Dale! Thanks for a bright start to a murky Saturday. Have a great weekend!

    • Thank you, Joe! Clear fall weather here at the moment. I woke up early and spent a glorious twenty minutes viewing the fall and winter celestial wonders in binoculars.

      Hope you have a great weekend, too!

  3. Great, appropriate post, Dale. And I really like the selections you have picked.

    1. I liked Kris’s thoughts on the importance of getting things right for the opening chapter. A great reminder each time we are starting a new book.
    2. Nancy and Clare said it well with their thoughts on what the beginning needs to include.
    3. I try to create that “book’s soul in miniature” by doing it slowly. I need to think about things and play with ideas. Recently. I’ve included the title and the first paragraph at the top of my outline. Each time I go to the outline, I review it and tweak it. Hopefully, by the time I get to the mirror moment, I have a better idea what the book is all about, and how I want that glimpse into the soul to read.

    Great beginning, Dale! Have a wonderful day.

    • Great comments, Steve. I liked Kris’s distinguishing between a hook and a great opening. A hook is a necessity, but a great opening is something to truly strive for, and not easy to achieve, at least not for me. I like your keeping the first paragraph at the top of your outline to hone as you work your way through your manuscript.

  4. I think the thing that jumped out at me from this post is the PJ Parrish quote “A great opening is a book’s soul in miniature.” I think that would make a great exercise–examine your work(s) in progress–based on your book’s opening, what is the soul of your story in miniature?

    I wrestle with openings. Not introducing backstory, to me, is one of the most difficult things to avoid because it’s a fine line to walk. I understand how too much backstory can make someone put the book down, but I’ve also read sparse openings that were not sufficiently self-explanatory that had the same effect on me. Granted, it’s getting all aspects of the opening right, not just do/do not use backstory, but coming up with the right combo takes experimentation. And I have less impatience with using backstory than others do.

    But I’m going to use the ‘miniature soul’ test on my openings and see how that informs my writing.

    • BK, I like your idea of using “the miniature soul” test on a story’s opening. Getting the opening right is certainly challenging in my experience. Some of it depends on genre and reader expectations.

      Description to me is one of those things you have to “dial in” to hit the right note, and experimenting is invaluable.

      Thanks for commenting! Have a wonderful weekend.

  5. Good day, Dale, and welcome to your seat at the KZ table. One general rule I follow is to set the central story question early one – preferably in the first page or three. Maybe I should say guideline rather than rule.

    • Garry, thanks for the welcome and the comment. I also like to set t the central story question very early on. It can be implied, hinted at, or even approached an angle in dialogue. Blake Synder called this the “theme stated,” but I prefer story question. He had it happening during the set-up, the opening. Like you said, a “guideline,” but a good one.

      Have a great weekend.

  6. Welcome, Dale ! What a great opening act!

    Next weekend is the Flathead River Writers Conference. I’m on a panel with an editor and agent called “First Impressions” where the first pages of attendees’ manuscripts are submitted anonymously and read aloud to the whole audience. At the point the panelists would stop reading, they raise their hands. They then explain why. Reasons can include loss of interest, unable to engage with character(s), confusion, boredom, etc. They also offer suggestions for improvement.

    I’m going to print out this post and refer to it b/c it’s a master class on beginnings from Nancy, Clare, and Kris.

    Shameless plug: the conference is in person and Zoom. Please check it out at this link:

    • Thanks, Debbie. That sounds like a great a conference. “First Impressions” is a great panel topic! I organized a similar panel when I helped run programming at Orycon, Portland’s science fiction convention. We called it “First Page Idol” (with apologies to a certain reality TV show 🙂

      I participated once myself as an audience member–it seemed only fair. Writer’s really appreciated the feedback. I’m certain those attending your panel will also.

      Thanks sharing for the conference link here!

  7. Welcome to the club, Dale! thanks for the shut-out on my old post. Forgot about that one! Looking forward to your future bloggings.

  8. “Writing the First Chapter” was my most popular teaching course, ever. The subject is also the most popular when people ask me writing questions. So much trauma for new and experienced writers.

    My one great take away from critiquing so many of those first chapters is that newer writers are creating that first chapter for themselves, not the reader. They are trying to get their heads into the story and all those explanations can be easily deleted during the first big rewrite. A surprising number of first chapters can be removed without a loss to the story.

    Some more experienced writers spend the first chapter priming the pump, too, and, sadly, they nor their over-worked editors clean up the sludge.

    • That’s a terrific point, Marilynn, about writers creating that first chapter for themselves. Something to be on the look out for in revision. I try to remember to begin the story as late as possible in the narrative.

      Thanks for commenting! Have a wonderful weekend.

  9. What are your most important considerations in crafting an opening chapter? In crafting effective openings? How do you make that opening line or paragraph be more than “just” a hook?
    This requires some deep mind-probing, since TBIB (The Boys in the Basement*) act independently of my consciousness.
    #1, implicit is that this opening will be new, will not take me in directions I’ve gone before, or, as feasible, directions anyone else has gone before, except in jest.
    #2, I must grab the reader in some way: novelty, shock, empathy, ailurophilia, voice, humor, perplexity, or a cautious combination of these.
    #3, I must love the reader, considering their feelings throughout.
    #4, I must care deeply about my characters, learn and cry over their backstories, without revealing them entirely.
    #5, I must ground the reader with a few details, like “Sheriff Singletary fell to the gritty, bare wooden floor…” I’ll return to one or more details briefly later, plunging readers (and someone) back into the opening drama. (Pg 30: [Deputy] Lonnie tentatively stepped on the new plywood flooring. “I’ll miss them old boards,” he said. “They been here for years.” Tears filled his eyes, but he couldn’t say what was so sad about the old boards being gone.)
    #6, employ poetic elements: metaphors that work at more than one level, if possible, alliteration―balancing the consonants―allusion, personification, and suchlike.
    #7, add a little character description to drive in the importance of the character present in the scene―even if he won’t survive it.
    #8, include or imply death or danger, if apropos, or subtle humor, if not. Foreshadow later vital developments here, as needed.
    #9, vary the pacing to echo the emotional content.
    #10, if the opening is a prologue, follow the rules thereof, e.g., 3/4 page or less, easily discernible from Chapter 1, etc.

    * AKA 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑮𝒖𝒂𝒓𝒅𝒊𝒆𝒏𝒏𝒆

  10. Hey Dale!
    Looking forward to your words of wisdom, I already feel motivated to get back to a writing schedule. I have a few promising beginnings, but it’s the ‘stick to it’ that gets me every time. It was such a grind to get the one and only done, and then I still wasn’t entirely happy with it.
    Any motivation tricks would be appreciated.

    • Hi Amanda! It’s wonderful to see you here. BTW, Steve Hooley is also another Long Ridge graduate.

      Start out small–give yourself a goal of 200 words a day, and make a note on the calendar, on a post-it, notebook, or spreadsheet, if you are so inclined. Schedule a half hour to write those 200 words, and build from that. Also, if you run out of gas in draft, I find going up to the thirty thousand foot level and writing what my story is about in a paragraph is hugely helpful. I might write down the chapter beats going forward.

      Most of all, I try and keep in mind that self-doubt is all part of the process. I’ll see about putting together a Words of Wisdom on writing motivation.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  11. Hello, I’m new to TKZ, but I just read your column on “Openings” and enjoyed it very much. I honestly never thought of openings in the way you’ve described. Writing started as an urge when I was young, and I’ve mostly just had to learn from the mistakes I’ve made. So I got thinking about whether I’ve used any of the tips described in your column…and YES! I opened my first completed novel with an argument between a husband and wife that was pretty much the basis for the entire book. Short stories – stray cats, nursing home nightmares, isolated cabin on the beach in winter…all led me down the path to the end. It’s cool to do things by instinct, but even better when we do them with awareness. Thank you for this new tool.

    • Welcome, Susan! I’m so glad you stopped by today, and that the excerpts I chose proved helpful. I like how you contrasted writing by instinct and writing with awareness. Writing awareness can still allow you to follow your intuition, but it can guide as well as help you shape what you’ve written in revision.

  12. Hi Dale,

    My primary goal for an opening chapter, and all subsequent chapters, is to entice readers to keep reading that particular chapter. But just as important to me, is that the last paragraph of every chapter adds a new question, fact, clue, or intrigue to motivate readers to read the next chapter.

  13. Hello Dale and welcome to the TKZ regulars! I’m always late to the party on Saturdays, but that way I can read and enjoy the post and all the comments. 🙂

    Great selection of “openings” for your first regular post. I do believe that the first sentence should not only raise a question in the reader’s mind that will keep him/her reading, but if possible provide insight into a character’s persona.

    It’s wonderful to have you here. Looking forward to future Words of Wisdom.

    • Thanks, Kay, for the welcome and support. No worries about “being late” on Saturday–anytime is a good time to comment 🙂

      I like your observation about that first sentence needing to both raise a question and providing insight in a character’s persona.

      I’m very glad to be here as a regular. Thanks again!

  14. Welcome, Dale,and talk about a good opening — you’re off to a good start. One thing I watch for in an opening chapter is to avoid having too many characters. It’s hard to give them proper introductions.

    • Thank you, Elaine! Very good point about being careful to not to have too many characters at the onset of your novel. It really can bog things down and also make it hard for the reader to remember them all.

  15. I always glean timely nuggets from the contributors here at The Kill Zone and today was another one. I have been struggling with my opening of my newest fiction. This gave me the insight to finally get it right. Thanks!

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