Every story you’ve ever read began. That may be a broad statement, but it is the one unifying characteristic of every piece of literature ever produced. If it began, the beginning had to matter for people to pay attention. So, how do you create an opening that screams at someone that they must keep reading?
A commonly used method is in medias res, Latin for “in the middle of things”. These works abandon exposition and prologues in favor of distinct moments; a runaway RV in Breaking Bad, a sword fight between warring houses in Romeo and Juliet, or a couple hurriedly fleeing in the night in The Stand.
They could be used to excite the audience with immediate action. They might incite questions in the reader as to why certain events are happening. Perhaps the author just wants to provide a general overview on how the world works through a demonstration rather than an explanation. The best openings often do all three at once. In medias res does NOT always have to start in the chronological middle of a story, as long as it occurs during an event or circumstance with little or no explanation.
“Fairy-tale openings” are nearly the opposite. These start with an explanation of who these characters are and what this world is. An excellent example of this can be found in the opening of How to Train Your Dragon (the novel by Cressida Cowell). We are introduced to Hiccup the Viking, many members of his tribe, and their traditions of capturing dragons and teaching them to be loyal. While there is much to explain about the world, Cowell turns it into a lesson within the story itself, allowing us to view it through the eyes of the students and learn along with them.
Every novel has a different type of perfect opening, and it is up to the author to determine which would be best. As writers, it is our job to keep the audience engaged from the start. If they aren’t able to stomach five pages in the first chapter, they won’t be willing to read another four hundred. You’ll know when you find your sweet spot because it will excite you just as much as the reader.
Do you have specific questions about novel openings that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 10/9 may not be included.
Have you ever opened a book, read the first few pages, and then thrown it away in disgust? Perhaps you thought, “I could write better than that in my sleep”. And say, one day, that you try to start writing something. But, for some strange reason, it doesn’t feel right. True, you’ve read tons of great literature over the years, and you know what makes a good novel… But how do you capture the essence of the incredible story brewing in your head?
Many of the writers that will appear in this column over the following months have asked similar questions, frustrated by essential elements of the novel they just can’t seem to crack. Why isn’t my imagery more vibrant? How do I make my antagonist more interesting? What even is a subplot, really?
From now until May, various students from Colgan High School’s CFPA Creative Writing program will post articles with advice on everything from genre to POV to archetypes and more. Starting with entry #2, each post will be followed by answers to user-submitted questions (that’s you!) with personalized, specific advice relating to the previous topic.
For example, our first advice column, fittingly centered around how to open a novel, will go over basic information and delve into some examples. Around 2-3 weeks later, when our second advice column goes up, we will post that topic (centered around character) followed by the user-submitted questions that might ask things that we didn’t cover in our article. The deadline for submitting questions will be posted on the website and usually closes around 3-4 days before the column is set to publish.
We hope you are excited to join us on this journey as we delve into all the reasons why the best novels work, and why the worst novels feel like work to sit through.