This year I’m facilitating a weekly class – Write Your Book in 2011. It’s a small, enthusiastic bunch of writers who are determined to get their books completed and are relishing the support that a group of like-minded people can provide. We spent the first term looking at ways to be inspired, planning writing routines, increasing output, outlining and getting the writing done.

This week the issue of story openings has come up for discussion. While my philosophy is to get the draft written in as short a time as possible and worry about the quality in the revision stage, it is true that a strong opening will set you up for a strong story. If you’re stuck at some stage in your draft it might be worth going back to the beginning and seeing if your opening has set up the strongest possible story line. And remember everything can be changed, and changed again at the revision stage. Often it’s not until we complete and revise our draft that we know the story and characters well enough to know the most effective way to begin. It’s worth writing a number of different openings and seeing which one works best, which one contains most or all of the elements needed to grab your reader.

So, what is needed in the opening paragraphs to make sure your reader wants to keep turning the pages?

  • a stellar first line
  • a hook (or hooks) which could be a question that needs answering, something that raises curiosity or mystery, or creates suspense
  •  strong writing
  • an interesting or intriguing setting
  • a character we want to know more about
  • foreshadowing (of what’s to come or even of the end of the story) 
  • a voice that establishes itself quickly and draws the reader in

How you rank these ingredients will depend on your writing style and taste, and also on the way your story evolves. Some writers start with a first line and build on that while others (most of us) spend hours, days or weeks writing and rewriting our first sentences.

Reading the openings of your favourite stories, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, is a great way to learn from other writers. Read as many as you can, as widely as you can, and make notes on the sort of openings that grab you as a reader. Many how-to books, not to mention editors, advise chopping out the first few paragraphs, the first few pages or even the first chapter or two. Starting with action rather than description is generally more effective.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting ideas and information on the elements I’ve listed today and sharing some of my favourite story openings.

What are your thoughts and suggestions on writing the best possible opening?