Story openings are daunting. Just starting out can freeze a writer. Like a golf swing, there are so many things to bear in mind:
- Grab the reader.
- Introduce the POV protagonist.
- Initiate character and thematic arcs.
- Start immediately with the inciting incident.
- Craft a memorable first line.
These bits of advice (grab the reader is more of a demand) can freeze a writer at the keyboard. At the risk of turning a natural chill to perma-frost, let me add one more bit of advice that might help with the rest. Start simple.
Let me explain with an example from music. When I was in my twenties, I played guitar in several rock bands. A friend (who looked like Bob Denver from Gilligan’s Island and played like Eric Clapton) had the same advice for soloing. “Start simple. Play a few licks they’ve heard before you launch off into your crazy shit. If you give them something fun they can wrap their heads around, they’ll stick with you.” (For non-musicians, a lick is a stock pattern or phrase that catches the ear…a hook.)
I offer this reader-friendly advice for your opening prose. Start simple. Don’t use complicated or cluttered sentences. Don’t be abstract. Don’t be overly poetic. Save your adjective and adverb modifiers for later. Let readers get the rhythm of your prose before you yank them down your dark path.
As an editor, I often see story openings that try to impress with complex poetics, only to slip back into the author’s natural voice. That change of voice is a death knell for a submission.
Instead, focus on your characters and plot. This means that in the hierarchy of imperatives, where you start your story is more important than how you start. When you revise, ask yourself the question would-be time travelers ask: What would I change if I knew then what I know now? Writing a novel? You started months or years ago. Luckily, authors can go back in time, knowing full well how things turned out.
In fact, your story’s opening may just be the last thing you write before finishing the novel. And when you revisit that opening, my advice still holds true. Start simple. Let the story unfold—you have miles of pages to go before the end.
Interested in some inspiration? Visit the following website, which opening lines thought to be the best in the history of literature: http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp
Some of these classic lines don’t follow my advice. Can you spot which ones?