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Debunking Writing Myths—The Opening Salvo

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Never open with dialogue. / Never open with description. / Never open with introspection. / Never use was and/or had in opening lines. / Always open in media res.

The rules to follow for your opening lines are that they capture the readers’ attention and that they set the tone for your story.

At the ACFW conference last year, I had the blessing of sitting down with Teresa Lockhart and Dorothy Adamek who wanted to pick my brain a little about some conflicting information they’d been hearing in workshops and agent/editor appointments. In the same day, they heard one person say, “Never open with dialogue,” and another workshop leader give examples of “great openings”—some of which happened to be dialogue. So what were they to glean from that?

Only that there are as many ways of opening a story as there are authors to write them.

Never open with dialogue.
Opening with dialogue can be great—it immediately gives your reader a feel for the characters’ voices and personalities—so long as you balance that dialogue with action and introspection that makes the reader immediately connect with the characters. Don’t open with dialogue just because that’s the “easiest” way to drop a reader into the middle of a scene. Opening with dialogue must be a deliberate choice—and it must be the right dialogue.

      In Writing Dialogue, Tom Chiarella wrote: “All good dialogue has direction. It’s a mishmash of needs and desire on the part of an individual character weighed against the tension inherent in the gathering of more than one person. . . . This is the stuff that fills the spaces between us, even when we don’t recognize it. As a writer, you have to learn to trust that it’s there” (21).

Dialogue that opens a novel must be directional—because it’s what’s setting the story in motion. For example:

“You did what?”

Forbes Guidry sank into the tall-backed leather chair, extremities numb, and stared at the couple sitting across the desk from him. As a partner in the largest law firm in Bonneterre, Louisiana, he’d heard a lot of shocking things over the fourteen years he’d been practicing. But nothing had hit him quite like this.
(from A Case for Love)

This opening line of dialogue goes deeper than Forbes’s shock at what he’s just heard his sister say. The opening of the novel is the beginning of the end for Forbes—at least, the end of life as he knows and controls it. Even though he may not ask this question again in the book, it’s a question that lingers throughout his story arc as he sees things happening around him that he can no longer control (or that he was deluded enough to think he controlled in the first place).

Never open with description.
This is a “rule” that’s come into being only in the past twenty (or fewer) years—as movies have set the standard for what we expect when we sit down with a book. No longer are we going to give it twenty or thirty pages to set the stage and introduce the characters. We want action and we want it now.

But wait . . . opening with description—the right kind of description—can help set the mood/tone of a book like nothing else:

No moon. Wispy clouds hid most of the stars. He could not have asked for a more perfect night. Before him, the house glowed like a lantern atop the hill. Behind him, his men waited for his command.

Those are the opening lines of Ransome’s Quest. Are you getting a sense of mood? Of the tone of this opening—of the book? Of course, this is description that also includes character—it’s not just a sterile, poetic description of the setting, it’s a character’s view of the setting.

Never open with introspection.
At the 2008 ACFW conference, James Scott Bell told us to think about the openings of our novels like a movie or stage play. If a character is just sitting around thinking, it’s going to get really boring on that screen/stage pretty quickly. And this is very good advice. But that’s not to say that you can never open with introspection—especially if you have the character doing something while they’re thinking:

Ned Cochrane, First Lieutenant, HMS Alexandra, stepped out of the jollyboat onto the stone dock and glanced around at the early morning bustle of the dockyard crew. Only nine days remained to fill the crew roster and fit out the ship with the supplies needed for the first leg of a transatlantic voyage. With yesterday lost in celebrating Captain—no, Commodore Ransome’s wedding, and since the commodore’s attention would be necessarily split between distractions on land and his duties to his ship, Ned would shoulder the burden of preparing the ship and crew.
(from Ransome’s Crossing)

Of course, he nearly gets knocked off the quay and into the water in the very next line, giving us action and dialogue and other characters.

Never use was and/or had in your opening lines.
I talked about this in the was/had post, but I’ll re-post my opening lines in which I gleefully used both verbs:

The sharks were circling.

Bobby Patterson had been at the party a total of three minutes. But half that time was all it took for the smell of fresh blood to circulate amongst the single women.
(from Love Remains)

Sometimes, with the image you draw, the tone you set, or the character you introduce, not following “the rules” can free up your creativity and your character’s voice.

Always open in media res.
What does in media res mean? Well, it means opening up in the middle of something happening. And about 90 percent of the time, this is the best way to go about structuring an opening. However, there are times, as exemplified above, in which opening just before or just after the something that happens may serve your story better. After all, if every story began in media res, we wouldn’t have such memorable opening lines as these:

      All children, except one, grow up.
      Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

      It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
      Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

      You better not never tell nobody but God.
      The Color Purple by Alice Walker

      Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.
      Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

      Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
      A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

      Call me Ishmael.
      Moby Dick by Herman Melville

      Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
      Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

What are some of your favorite opening lines/scenes of stories? Do they follow the rules or do they break the rules? Please share—yours or from books you’ve read (please indicate author/title of the work).

  1. Tuesday, March 22, 2011 4:58 am

    I dont aways remember the beginning of a book I often know it was good but not always but I have to say Mary Connealy has good openings. Petticoat Ranch was really good and the last one Sharpshooters in petticoats.
    Oh and I do love yours “The sharks are circling”

    I just finished Mirage by Jeanette Grant Thomson and it started well. (She’s an aussie author who I am featuring on my blog on Thursday selfless plug there)
    “There are incidents that change the course’s of one’s whole life. Or even alot of lives. Although not everyone agreed with her, Bronwyn Remembered that evening in the shopping centre as pivotal.”


  2. Tuesday, March 22, 2011 7:15 am

    Great examples Kaye. For every ‘rule’…

    You’ve proven that it’s not keeping the rule but keeping the reader. Of course now I want to go home (I’m at work) and grab a book.

    Happy Spring, everyone!


  3. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, March 22, 2011 8:55 am

    Honestly, a new writer could get yo-yo brain with all the don’ts out there — especially when you open a book and read a notable author breaking the rules all over the place. LOL. Thanks for the soothing calm of your wisdom!

    I’m at work right now so I can’t give you any examples of great first lines but I will say that a first line that hooks me may be the deciding factor on whether I buy a book or not. I go to the store prepared in advance with a list of Must Reads, but my pocket book can’t finance everythng I want so I pare it down by read the first couple of lines.


  4. Tuesday, March 22, 2011 10:09 am

    One of the things I enjoy about creativity is that there are many ways to share it. Sometimes I find fiction with all our rules coming across as formulatic, canned, and at times it is disappointingly reflected in some of today’s novels. It thrills me (maybe I’m just a rebel!) when someone breaks the rules, its refreshing to me. So the challenge to my self is to sound refreshing while heeding MOST of the rules.

    One of the most memorable, funny, edgy, first openings I ever read is in Deeanne Gist’s The Measure of a Lady: “This Road is Impassible, Not Even Jackassible.” I was hooked right away! Why? It was hillarious, shocking, and I immediately wanted to know who was thinking/reading that and why.

    Laura Frantz’s voice is also refreshing. In the entire first chapter of The Frontiersman’s Daughter there were only five, yes 5, brief lines of dialogue. And I was totally absorbed by her beautiful prose. I immediately knew, but even more so, by the third paragraph when the first bit of dialogue occurred – “Click, show us your pretty daughter” – that there was a story here well worth reading and I now regard it as one of my all time favorite novels.

    With respect to what the best teachers say, and with the caveat that I have learned to conform, I wonder what sets a book apart from a movie at times. Reading introspection can get me immediately into the head of the character, but to watch it on a screen would be different. Sometimes I feel that we are giving in to a different media. Isn’t it the beauty of writing that we can use introspection or description. And why is it acceptable for movies to have a beautiful setting introduction that transports us to the place and time, but not use that method in descriptive openings? It befuddles me!

    When I write, my main goal is to set the mood and create interest with those first lines. I tend to so with dialogue and/or a bit of introspection.


  5. Tuesday, March 22, 2011 11:38 am

    I love starting a story with dialogue. Especially if it’s humorous dialogue, or something that is particular to that character. I also loved the beginning of “Love Remains.” That beginning, with the sharks circling, stuck in my mind, and I could so SEE it! 🙂

    Some of my favorite opening lines, however, are from Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides.” “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” It makes you know that the sea is a large part of the character’s development, and that PLACE has so much to do with what he has become.


  6. Tuesday, March 22, 2011 12:08 pm

    “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
    –Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis

    The opening of the first Harry Potter book is up there with it for humor.


  7. Tuesday, March 22, 2011 1:22 pm

    Thanks for the “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” of opening lines! Good discussion too! I have so many, many favorites…almost every book I read. Here are two though:
    “This will be a good weekend for reading.” From Adriana Grigiani’s “Big Stone Gap”.
    And from Benedict and Nancy Freedman’s “Mrs. Mike”…..”The worst winter in fifty years, the old Scotsman had told me.”


  8. Tuesday, March 22, 2011 7:52 pm

    “One August day in 1786 an American legend was born. His name was Davy Crockett.”

    –“Davy Crockett” a language arts research paper
    By: Jordan Lesley (11)

    That’s the best opening line I’ve read all day. I thought it was pretty good even if it does say “was” twice! :0)



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