Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Need to Know: Opening Your Story

By Michael J. Martinez @mikemartinez72

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Beginnings make or break a story. If you can't grab a reader, they won't keep reading, no matter how good your story is "once it gets going." Michael J. Martinez visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on creating openings that hook your readers and keep them reading to the end.

Michael has spent 20 years in journalism and communications writing other people's stories. A few years ago, in a moment of blinding hubris, he thought he'd try to write one of his own. So far, it's working out far better than he expected. Mike currently lives in northern New Jersey with his wonderful wife, amazing daughter, two cats and several chickens. He's an avid traveler and homebrewer, and since nobody has told him to stop yet, he continues to write fiction. He is a proud member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and International Thriller Writers (ITW).

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Take it away Michael...

Stop. There’s something wrong.

Very wrong. Something’s happened to your novel. You didn’t think it was an issue, but it is. And it could derail the whole thing before it even gets started.

Your opener is boring.

OK, maybe it isn’t, but I got your attention, didn’t I? Stop. There’s something wrong. Holy crap, what? What’s wrong? TELL ME. I need to know.

Yes, I indulged in a bit of meta-writing there, but the point’s been made. Your opening needs to grab the reader, and if it’s boring, they’ll be off to the next book before page 10. Make them need to know what’s coming next and you’ll keep them for the rest of the book.

The trick is doing so without sounding like a bad local news teaser. This one item in your kitchen cabinet could kill you! We’ll tell you what it is after Sports.

As a writer of science fiction, fantasy, thrillers and historical mashups – often in the very same book – I tend to default to a plot-driven opener. The Daedalus Incident opens with the line, “Mars is supposed to be dead,” and launches into an earthquake on a future Mars. The Enceladus Crisis starts with an alien battle in the ancient past. My latest novel, MJ-12: Inception,starts with a soldier being shot by a sniper in Berlin immediately after the end of World War II. Boom. Dead. What’s going on??

This is a lot like the en media res style openings you’ll find in movies, most notably Star Wars. Remember the very first scene in the very first film? A tiny spaceship is trying to flee an immeasurably huge Star Destroyer. It’s hopelessly outmatched and is soon swallowed up into the hangar bay. You, the viewer, are left with so many questions about what’s going on, who the good guys are, what the stakes are – and the film answers all that in just five minutes, leaving the audience hooked and wondering what’s coming next. And who’s that guy in black, anyway?

This sort of plot-driven cold-open is probably the easiest way to hook someone, in my opinion, but it’s not always suitable for the kind of story you want to tell. There are other tropes, of course, but these aren’t as reliable as we think they are. For example:
  • The Descriptive Meditation: Some stories start small, focusing on a single person or item, delving deep into detail before panning out so you can see that person or item in context in a larger world. This is incredibly hard to do, because this relies as much on the beauty of your language as on the interesting nature of what you’re describing. I’ve honestly only seen it work once or twice.
  • Good Morning, World!: More than a few stories will start with a main (or secondary) character waking up and going about their business as they prepare to start the day and, ideally, enter the book’s plot. Unless a ninja crashes through the window within the first two pages, I’m pretty much bored already unless the character and/or the morning routine is extremely abnormal or outright crazy. 
  • Dreamweaver: I will fully cop to starting a novelette with a dream sequence, and I’d like to think it worked; there were strong plot-related reasons for both the dream itself and the content of said dream. But again, the dream has to be very compelling and very well written to succeed. 
  • The Argument: Well, that sets things up properly, doesn’t it? Plot, character, conflict – it’s all right there! But chances are, you’re starting with dialogue rather than description or activity, and taking time out to describe such things can detract from the flow and tension of the argument. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, just that it’s a juggling act from word one.
I could go on, of course, but in the end, there’s no right way to open your story. My preference for the big bang isn’t absolute – I started a story once with a priest praying over a vat of fermented beer, which seemed like an interesting hook. Another started on a road in the middle of Kansas that lent itself to reflection and exposition and ultimately a mystery.

The commonalities, though, are simple: Grab the reader and never let go. Whether you grab them with a major outburst of action or plot, an utterly compelling character or even just a dazzling display of lyrical writing, you must absolutely seize the reader’s head by the end of page one. That opener has to be intensely interesting in some way: I need to know what’s going on, or I need to know this odd person, or how this dream ends, or why this beautifully wrought description of a beehive is so important.

I need to know. That’s the key to your opening. Create that need, and you’ve hooked ‘em.

About MJ-12: Inception:

It is a new world, stunned by the horrors that linger in the aftermath of total war. The United States and Soviet Union are squaring off in a different kind of conflict, one that’s fought in the shadows, where there are whispers of strange and mysterious developments. . .

Normal people across the United States have inexplicably gained paranormal abilities. A factory worker can heal the sick and injured. A schoolteacher bends emotions to her will. A car salesman alters matter with a simple touch. A former soldier speaks to the dying and gains their memories as they pass on.

They are the Variants, controlled by a secret government program called MAJESTIC-12 to open a new front in the Cold War.

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  1. Michael, you're soooo right! Tweeted!

  2. Great blog. Just shared with my writing students. Thank you!

  3. These are great points. Thank you.

  4. These are great points. Thank you.