Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What is the Function of a Story Opening?

Some writers struggle with endings. Some writers struggle with those wide and ungainly middles.

I have always struggled with beginnings.

I think, for the longest time, this was because I only partly knew what an opening was supposed to do; the function of an opening within the overall story was vague to me.

Not completely, of course. I think, as a young writer, I wrote very instinctively. Yes, I'd read books on writing, and taken classes, and knew the basics: the hook, the rising action, the climax, the denouement. But most of what I did was instinctive, grasping at half-buried knowledge and following my imagination.

I think I knew the part that most writers know. The opening is a hook. What does that mean? It's a simple metaphor, really. The opening should hook the reader like a fish and reel them in. No hook? No food at the end of the day. Now, I wasn't so naive as to think that this meant a major action scene was necessary to start every story. But this was basically my idea of what an opening was, and should do: hook.

And, yes, this is important. An opening should definitely hook a reader and convince them to turn the pages. But what is it, exactly, that hooks a reader? And is that all that an opening should do?

I'm currently reading Robert McKee's Story, and one of the things I like about the book is that it relates some very clear ideas about both what an opening is and what it should do. This would have been extraordinarily helpful to know ten years ago, before I learned a lot of it on my own through trial and error. Mostly error. It took me a lot of bad openings to learn a few simple things.

The key element of an opening is the inciting incident, the event that sets the story in motion. Now, it can come on the first page, or you can take a bit of time and lead up to it. But it is always the hinge upon which the story swings. And, so, what is this opening supposed to do? What is it that engages the reader?

One of the simple keys is that this inciting incident relates to character. It's not simply that the major hook is inherently interesting, but that it changes the main character's situation. It sets up a conflict, the most basic sort of conflict, the kind that drives almost all stories: a conflict between what the character has and what the character wants or needs. A sudden gulf is opened. And the character must find a way to cross that gulf.

And this last element is another important aspect of the opening--it should point the way through the story's main conflict and toward the climax and conclusion. There are exceptions, of course (there are always exceptions). But a strong opening often acts as a sort of foreshadowing for the climax, setting up the possibility of the final conflict, a climax which the reader wants to see.

(Beware the spoilers...)

The Lord of the Rings: Frodo discovers the dangerous nature of the One Ring ---> Frodo dangles the Ring over the fires of Mount Doom.

The Road: The man's wife kills herself, unable to face the post-apocalyptic world and continue along the road, introducing the despair/hope conflict ---> The man continues down the road and dies protecting his son, but he offers hope.

No Country For Old Men: Moss finds millions of dollars in the desert amidst a bunch of dead men, and wants the money--and he must keep it away from others who want it just as badly ---> Moss is killed, the villain gets the money, and the sheriff contemplates the meanness of the world.

This is the function of an opening. It engages the reader, yes, but it engages them because it brings them inside the story and conflict. It breaks open a gulf before a character and sets them on a path to find a way across. And the reader wants to know how the character will do this, and what will happen on the other side.

This isn't fancy, or necessarily even deep, but it took me a lot of writing to figure this out. I think the problem, often, is that we think of story elements in isolation. What is my opening? Oh, it's this cool thing that happens. People will love it! But the importance of the opening is not in its inherent excitement, but in its connection to the rest of the story. The opening is procreative, the story created in that singular moment. It is the Big Bang that pushes motion and life into the fictional world, and story velocity is often a function of how well this opening is integrated into the complicating events that follow.

And what about you? What does a story opening mean to you? And how did you learn to write one?


Matthew Rush said...

I'm not going to claim to be an expert, because I've only written one novel, and even that one isn't really done, so I have no idea. However, I have always loved the idea of an opening as a promise from the writer to the reader.

As in, 'if you read this story, you will discover the resolution to such and such a thing.' Obviously it's not that simple, and it's better when this is done subtly, rather than overtly, but for some reason I love the idea of a promise.

Steve said...

I thought the opening of NO COUNTRY was Chigurh killing people. Maybe I've misremembered.

And didn't THE ROAD open with a song and dance number?

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Oh, I forgot about the Fred Astaire sequence...

L.G.Smith said...

I always start with explosions. Seems to get people's attention.

Jessica Bell said...

Trial and error, buddie, trial and error -- and five bloody years of trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. But I tell you, if someone had have just told me what I learnt in those five years at the very beginning, I probably wouldn't have listened! I don't regret those five years at all :o)

Paul Joseph said...

Like Matt said, I'm no expert. But for my current W.I.P., I have written the first chapter four times now. Not revised it, but written a completely new chapter until I figured out where I wanted to start. For me, as a YA novelist, I think it is important to build suspense and hook the readers. I want them to ask questions, be motivated to turn the page, and start making predictions for where the story is going. I try my hardest to incorporate all of those elements.

Oh, and in most cases, I don't think the chronological beginning necessarily matches where a book begins.

Emily White said...

I've always just tried to start the book right where the MC's life changes in a certain way. And it's usually that change that propels the rest of the story.

I've never had much problem with beginnings, but endings are another matter. Those are the ones I keep having to change because I always seem to want to end the story a tad too early.

Marsha Sigman said...

I know exactly what you mean. A great hook is nice but if it has nothing to do with the story, then it's like a betrayal to the reader.

The first manuscript I wrote had like 10 pages of backstory right at the beginning.lol It was seriously horrible.

Claudie A. said...

Thanks for this, Bryan. I've been struggling with my own beginning, and every new perspective I get on the subject helps.

Orson Scott Card says something quite similar to your post -- he advises to pick a beginning which raises a question, and to make sure the ending answers it.

Ted Cross said...

For me I wanted my openings (since I had a few main characters) to be the point when the person's life was suddenly changed. I like events that serve as catalysts for what comes next.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's probably the best (or at least most clear) description of the opening and hook I've ever read. My stories don't start off with a big bang of action and that always worried me. But inciting incident that changes the character's situation - that fits.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Great post, Bryan. That was a very clear description of the function of the hook. I've been learning - slowly - that simple is always best. ;)

jbchicoine said...

When I started out writing, I just picked the time and place where the story seemed to have enough momentum to take flight--sort of like Bernoulli's principle. I later learned it was called the inciting incident...

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Yes, yes, yes! The book is brilliance, no? :)

I've heard many different ways of describing what the opening is supposed to do, and I think each is like the small bits of the elephant described by the four blind men. McKee comes closest to naming the beast.

The latest elephantine bit of description I've read was that the opening should set the mood of the novel, or at least the tone of the main conflict (though not necessarily the conflict itself). Maybe the conflict writ small. I think this is another way of saying what McKee was getting at with his idea of the "obligatory scene" - that the opening (up to and including the Inciting Incident) should set up an obligatory scene in the mind of the reader, and the ultimate showdown should be set in their minds. Cop catches robber (or not). Katniss fights to the death in the Hunger Games (win or lose).

I'm ridiculously happy that you're reading this book. :)

maine character said...

Good point. The beginning of James Bond movies have that trademark short scene where he dispatches a bad guy. It probably started as an introduction to the character, but even there it doesn't lead into the rest of the film.

"Raiders" is better 'cause even though it's a similar action scene, at least there you meet the bad guy, Belloq, and you gain respect and sympathy for Indiana (and learn he hates snakes).

But "The Empire Strikes Back" works best 'cause the Imperial probe touching down on Hoth sets up the huge battle, and at the same time, Luke sees Ben, which leads him to Matthew Rush.

mooderino said...

I think you can get too focused on making it clear exactly what is going on immediately, which is very much a Hollywood screenplay way of doing things. what's important, IMO, is that the start of the book is interesting. Tell the reader interesting stuff about whatever, the character, the place, even backstory (if you must), but make it interesting and the reader will keep reading.

Donna Hole said...

Oh, exactly that.

It needs to introduce the MC, and an inciting incident, and entice me with the possibility of change/growth in the end. A vague concept is enough to keep my attention. But if a story starts too quickly - lays out the story plot before the character plot - I have a hard time finishing the novel.

I'm a character driven reader. Plot has to be there, but character comes first for me.

I have a hard time writing openings. Like you, I'm not totally sure what the story is about so I don't know where to start. To compsensate, I start at the end. I know what the end will look like, which characters will get to the end, and maybe a few steps along the way to get there. So I write the ending first. Then I just start where I think it should.

My first three novels are were written pretty much as edits, expanding a plot concept until the characters and journey felt complete.

You can see I'm not daunted by the editing process . .

Bryan, I have a Journey Support Award for you at my blog today.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Bryan. This was really helpful. Since I'm still learning, I don't really have an opinion on what works for me. What I've noticed, though, it that I seem to have to write my way into the hook. In other words, I'll notice a more interesting opening a few paragraphs into what I've written, if that makes sense.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

One thing I discovered with the book I'm now querying is that when you change a major plot element to it, it can have a huge impact in your beginning.

My original beginning had been fine for my story until I change the plot so that the serial killer showed up in chapter three instead of at the climax. After much reworking, I realized the old chapter one needed to be cut, and the book needed to begin at chapter two (after some massive rewrites).

Fortunately the beginning of my current wip begins exactly where it should. :D

Margo Berendsen said...

I found you from Susan K Quinn's blog - she one of my favoritist blogger evah. So glad to meet you! I love to get into posts like this that give me examples and make me think.

I think you've nailed the most important elements of the opening 1) hook 2) care about character 3) conflict (and bonus if it points to the climax of story). I've been focusing on the care about character part - find something unique about that character but also something universal in her situation that most people are going to be able to relate to.