Analyzing Story Openings (RWA 2010 Blog Series)

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Today I’m blogging about “The Inside Scoop: Analyzing Openings as an Agent, Bookseller, and Reader, Then Solving the Problems as a Writer Workshop presented during RWA’s 2010 Conference by author Robin Perini and author/freelance editor Claire Cavanaugh.

The speakers started with a survey of agents, booksellers and readers. Most agents knew by the end of page 1 if they didn’t want to read on, though they might read up to 10 pages. (Such a scary thought!) They want to be given enough of a hook within the first two or three paragraphs that they are interested in reading on.

What sorts of things do agents and/or readers want to see on the first few pages?

  • Characters in conflict
  • High concept
  • Voice
  • Who to root for
  • Setting up of reader expectations such as tone and genre

Some tips for creating compelling openings that will make people read on:

  • You generally need to make clear by the end of the first page what the setting for your story is.
  • Set your tone and maintain it. If you are writing drama, don’t start out with humor.
  • State your theme early and sprinkle in references to it throughout.
  • Create one or more questions for the reader.
  • Make it short. Only include what the reader really needs to know right now.
  • You need a character your reader will fall in love with or want to be like.
  • Answer what, where, when and how as soon as you can. It’s the why that will keep readers reading on.
  • Make sure you are showing vs. telling. Bring your reader as far into the character’s viewpoint as possible.

    Do you have a favorite opening for a book? What is it that makes this opening so compelling for you?

    For me, it’s the opening to Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost. We know by page 2 that the heroine is not a typical woman. Far from it. She’s got a dead body in the back of her truck. Who wouldn’t be compelled to read on and find out why?

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    6 thoughts on “Analyzing Story Openings (RWA 2010 Blog Series)

      Rachel Firasek said:
      November 17, 2010 at 1:46 pm

      Your reference is the exact same one I was thinking about. Frost delivers on every level and I use her books as a writer’s tool-not to copy mind you, but as a reference to what will work. Love her. Great article.

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        November 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm

        She is a great reference. Her openings are strong and effective. They pull you into the story immediately. I can only strive to write half as effectively as that.

      laradunning said:
      November 17, 2010 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks for the tips for the first few pages. It is a scary thought to think the first page holds so much for your future to getting published. Maybe a good way to look at it, is as a flash fiction exercise. Use your list and make sure those are all included within the first 1500 words.

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        November 17, 2010 at 2:08 pm

        That’s a great suggestion, Lara. I agree, it is quite daunting to think that agents and editors make a decision so quickly. We spend months, if not years, on a novel, and it can be discounted in a matter of seconds. Yikes!

      Anita Clenney said:
      November 18, 2010 at 7:28 am

      Great tips!! I can’t think of a favorite opening off the top of my head, but agents and editors are certainly looking for good openings. When I got an agent she almost immediately had me cut the first chapter of my Scottish paranormal so that I opened at the moment before a big discovery, and I made the first lines more compelling. We hear all the time that new writers should in most cases cut the first chapter, but I actually saw it in practice, and she was right. It made the story much better. And she sold it 🙂

      Aside from the fact that editors and agents are looking for good ones, and judging them so quickly, as a reader it’s wonderful to be immediately grabbed by a story.

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        November 18, 2010 at 8:17 am

        I always try to think as a reader when crafting my openings, but it’s so difficult to do when you know your story so intimately. Openings are really tough!

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