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?