Fiction Writing: Elements of An Irresistible Opening– Test Yours!

I’ve had a couple of great days. Yesterday I located a buried body, excavated the grave site, collected evidence, studied the victim’s bones in the lab and was able to ID the victim from missing persons records. And all without leaving my living room.

How? I’ll tell you that later in the post.

grave

In the meantime I want to talk about “the hook”. We all know what it is, but do we really know the best place to start our novels? You’ve heard the advice a million times: Start in the middle of the action. But does that mean in the middle of a gunfight, a bar brawl, a domestic squabble? Or is it better to start your novel right before the action explodes, when two men are sneering at each other from across the room, eyes crimped, arms curled, muscles flexing against stretched-thin tank tops?

I say it’s the latter. And here’s why. A great mentor/author once told me that you need to accomplish several things in that all-important opening paragraph.

1. You need to introduce your character and give the reader a reason to care about them IN THE OPENING LINE. Sympathy is the quickest way.

2. You need to raise ANY story question IN THE OPENING LINE.

3. You need to raise your Central Dramatic Story Question– CDSQ– IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH.

4.  You need to create conflict in the opening paragraph.

5.  You need to give the reader a reason a keep reading.

death

Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. This is why so many openings fail. This is why it takes me several rewrites to find the perfect opening for a new book. It is in no way easy. But it is necessary.

Now, you could say, “Hey, Sue, rules were made to be broken.”

You could say that. And that’s certainly you’re right as a writer. Please know I write these types of posts to help not to hinder. My only motivation is to save you days/weeks/months/even years of struggling that I’ve already endured so you won’t have to. These tips come from the heart, truly.

You need to introduce your character and get sympathy for them in the opening line.

The introduction is fairly easy. You’d simply say, “Sage Quintano (my character from MARRED) did such and such.” If you write in the first person I’ll give you a little extra time to get his/her name in there, but not much. Shoot for two paragraphs. You ought to be able to think of creative way to sneak your character’s name in by then. The easiest way is dialogue, having another character call them by name. Boom. Done.

But now you need to gain sympathy for that character, give the reader a reason to care if she gets killed/maimed/marred. Here’s where it becomes a little trickier, especially when dealing with characters on the wrong side of the law.

So how do we do this? We give them a trait that others can relate to. A flaw. A situation that tugs at the reader’s heart-strings. We’ve talked about flaws before. For anyone struggling with this I’d recommend the Negative Trait Thesaurus, which you can find here.

We all have flaws, some more than others, so it’s important that your character does too.

You need to raise a story question in the opening line.

For example in MARRED I showed Sage rubbing her belly, her heart aching over the life she lost. How did she lose it? When did it happen? That’s two questions AND I’ve gotten sympathy for her right away.

Raise a story question– any story question– in the opening line and it will keep your reader flipping pages to find the answer.

In the opening paragraph you need conflict.

Conflict drives your story. If your story was an automobile than conflict would be the gas. Your car will not go anywhere without gas and neither will your story without conflict. Get your character in conflict with another character or with themselves– inner conflict– right away.

Give your reader a reason to keep reading.

How do we do that? By giving our character a goal and by showing WHY it’s important that they meet that goal. This will not only humanize them, but it will give your reader a reason to root for them when they’re in terrible trouble. It will also foreshadow what’s to come.

I saw a great chart recently on DyingWords.net— my go-to site for forensics and other crime related data. I’m mentioning this site for a reason, but that too you will have to wait for. In a guest post by K.M. Weiland she said, “In order for your story to resonate deeply with your very human audience, your character’s goal needs to be one of five specific things.”

Below is the motivation triangle in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, showing the five categories.

KM-Weiland1

For a more in-depth look at each of these categories you can find the post here. It’s excellent. If you’re not familiar with K.M. Weiland or her blog, look her up. She’s amazing. And you can find her site here.

So now you’ve introduced your character, raised a story question, given your reader a reason to care, created conflict, and showed them the goal and why it’s important– all in the opening paragraph.

So we’re done, right? Wrong. One more thing.

Your central dramatic story question.

What is it and why is it important? The CDSQ defines your story. It IS your story. The moment it is asked– your story begins. The moment it is answered– your story ends. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Figure out what your CDSQ is and build your story around it. It’s also a great way to stay on track and give your story structure.

For example, this is my CDSQ for MARRED: Will Sage find her way back to her husband, heal herself of a vicious rape and find her kidnapped twin in time to save her life?

Little tip for those going traditional: When you’re asked for a logline start with your CDSQ only reword to form a sentence instead of a question.

***

As a gift I’ll let you in on a fun but difficult exercise– that I got from Dyingwords.net– where YOU can play cop/coroner for an afternoon. It’s a virtual crime scene created by the pros. And the link is here. Enjoy!

Before I let you go let me tell you why I divulged my go-to site for forensics and other crime related matters. It’s because Garry Rodgers from DyingWords– retired mounted police officer/retired coroner/firearms expert– will be guest posting right here on the blog. If you write crime fiction or any story with a crime in it you won’t want to miss this one!

Now it’s your turn to test your opening!

You’ve got all the elements of a perfect opening– the hook– so why not test it with the rest of us? Leave me your first paragraph in the comment section and I’ll tell you how you did.

14 Comments

  1. That’s fantastic! I shared with my writing group. Thank you Sue. 🙂

  2. The envelope was small, thank-you-card small, decorated with delicate pastel daisies thick on the bottom left corner and progressively thinner as they followed the edges, spreading toward the top and the right becoming almost invisible as they reached the far edges. It was old paper, long forgotten stationary, Marnie remembered too well. She had brought it for her daughter when she turned thirteen.

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

    A little note: I can’t read the comments. It looks like black on black. I do see happy faces.

    • Still working on my new design. Sorry. It will be fixed soon.

    • Well you’ve definitely raised a story question, maybe it’s even your CDSQ. I want to know what is so special about this envelope. But let’s introduce your main character in the first line so we know who’s narrating. Not sure what your genre is or if Marnie’s child is still alive, but for this exercise let’s say she isn’t. Try something like: Marnie held that long-forgotten envelope in her hand, sadness taking hold from the memory of when she gave it to her deceased daughter years ago.

      Now we’ve introduced the character, gotten sympathy and raised a story question– all in the opening line. Then you can go into the beautiful description of the envelope without any fear of losing your reader. You’ve hooked them right away and they’ll be willing to take the ride. But you’ll also need to give her a goal. Make sense?

  3. Great advice – just re-read a second time to ensure I have everything. Thx so much for sharing this 🙂

  4. You have some good advice here, Sue. Thanks

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