As promised, I’ve got the second section of our June 23 workshop below. You can talk to me in the comments. Or email me your questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m here.
June 23 WIR Workshop: This Won’t Hurt a Bit: Part 2
I’m not going to try to be the guru of all book openings. I’m a writer, like all of you, and I struggle with what is arguably the most important part of the book: the first page. No, strike that. The first line.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going to into it, if you want to know the truth.”
No pressure or anything, right?
(The first was the first line of Charlotte’s Web, the second the first line of Catcher in the Rye, in case you’re stuck.)
The opening is your first chance to make an impression on the reader. It’s a door you’re holding open. And all the axioms you may have heard are true. A good opening plunges the reader right into the story. You’ve done a lot of thinking about your story, and it may be tempting to start the reader where you started – way back at the beginning. But your job here is to lift the reader right over the top of all that lead-up, all the lead-up you’ve prepared in your mind and thrust them right into the story.
A good opening will have
- Your protagonist
As I’ve been working with writers this year, and reading a lot of your work, I’m seeing something that I often notice in myself: many openings – let’s say the first five pages—have a lot of explanatory information crammed into them. Maybe family history, explanation of the world the author’s created. And here’s the thing: you will have time in your manuscript to get all of that out. But the opening is not the time to do that. There’s a certain anxiety among writers, myself included, to make sure your reader knows as much as possible, as soon as possible. And one thing I’m working on myself, is relaxing a bit. The reader is on your side. They want to read your story. They don’t care if they don’t know every detail of everything right from the start. They just want a good story, and they trust you that you’ll let them know what they need to know to understand the story. We want to emulate a confidence that this world is real, these people are real, and that this story we’re telling is so compelling, the reader will follow us into it. I know that’s a bit philosophical.
The opening is like having a cup of coffee with someone. It’s interesting, stimulating, fun, but it’s not a board meeting. The opening is the place for you to introduce your protagonist. How does she talk? How does she react? What kind of a place are we in? What is around us? And – a hint that there is going to be a problem approaching.
All the other history and rules of the world or backstory—those things will come out. They have to. And you’ll make sure they do—this is where letting go of the anxiety comes in. You’ll weave them in to the first three or four chapters. But if you’re writing a book about an orphan train, let’s get on that train right away. Let’s be on the train when the story opens. Or let’s be on the platform, watching the train roll in. Or let’s be standing in the farmyard as the wagon jolts up to take you and your brother away to the train station. All the explanation, you’ll get that later. Right now, bolt your reader into the story. Don’t bury the lead. Don’t hide the story. Get the essence of the story out in the first page. All the rest is details.