A former private detective and reporter for a small weekly newspaper, G.B.Pool writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line.” For more information about Gayle and her books, visit her website.
Whether you are writing a novel, short story, or screenplay, you want to open your story with a BANG!
The Most Important Lesson:
If you want to give yourself a better chance to have your short story, novel or screenplay picked up by an agent, a publisher, or a producer, you have to get their attention FAST. If you are lucky, an agent/publisher will read your first chapter. Usually they will just read the first few pages or maybe only the first paragraph. This holds true for a short story that you might submit to a contest. Agents get 50 manuscripts a day and they are looking for any excuse to toss your work into the round file. You want to make your opening a GRABBER.
Make sure the opening scene has some relevance to the rest of the story, whether it actually figures into the plot or echoes the theme. Opening in a beautiful flower garden better reveal a dead body in the posies. Or hearing about a long ago train wreck better foretell another “train wreck.”
What exactly does an Opening Line/Paragraph/Scene in a Short Story, Novel or Screenplay do?
- Sets the TONE of the story
- Establishes the GENRE
- States the PROBLEM
- It might hint at the SOLUTION
- Gets you into the action FAST
The Opening should do 2, 3 or all of these things.
When the OPENING Sets the Tone (funny/mysterious/adventure/children’s lit/chick lit/geezer lit). Don’t start out funny and turn it into a slasher film.
EXAMPLE: I couldn’t believe they found Brad’s body. I thought I buried him deeper. “A Role to Die For” by G.B.Pool
This opening has dark humor; absolutely no remorse (Tone); it’s probably a mystery (Genre); it starts right in the middle of the beginning (Fast); and the reader will want to know if the killer gets caught (Problem).
EXAMPLE: When TONE is established by VOICE
Archie Wright’s the name. Dishing dirt’s the game. My sandbox: Hollywood. The most glamorous and glitzy, vicious, and venomous playground in the world. If you come for a visit, bring your sunscreen and your shark repellent. If you come to stay, let me warn you, Tinsel Town eats up and spits out a hundred just like you every day. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, but it’s my job to chronicle the ebb and flow of the hopeful, the helpless, and the hapless. My best stories come from the dark side of Glitzville. “Glitzville” by G.B. Pool
This opening is written in first person which is very one-on-one (Tone); the glib Hollywood-eze sets the Genre; there is a little dark humor, too. (Tone).
- When the OPENING Establishes the Genre – Mystery, Romance, Children’s Lit, Chic Lit, Geezer Lit, Women’s Fiction, Adventure.
East Berlin – 24 December 1964 – 4:00 p.m.
Why does it always rain when I’m in Berlin? Ralph Barton thought, feeling the oppressive dampness close in around him. The Odd Man by G.B. Pool
This opening classifies itself as historical, Cold War story (Genre); the very nature makes it a taught, spy drama (Tone).
Frank Madison rode the Monorail to work.
The used Cadillac Eldorado he bought six years earlier came with a stack of options, most of which didn’t work. The gas tank was currently empty, and so was his wallet, so the mint green boat sat at the curb near his place and he took public transportation.
“The Santa Claus Singer” by G.B. Pool
But in this example, the opening doesn’t set the genre. It does set the TONE. We have a down-on-his-luck guy riding the Monorail (Mono means: one/lonely). It does state a PROBLEM: the guy doesn’t have much money.
Here is another way to set the Genre for this story: Write a GRABBER book blurb
An out-of-work lounge singer ends up playing Santa Claus at the mall and makes a very sick young girl a promise that could cost him everything, but sometimes the best gift you can give is yourself.
The BLURB classifies this as a holiday story (Genre); How is this guy gonna overcome his situation? (Problem).
Another way to set the Genre so the reading public knows what type of book you have written: Have the book’s COVER fit the story you are telling.
If you have a publisher who wants to design the cover without your help, write a killer book blurb to capture the essence of your story and/or make sure your OPENING reflects the type of book you are writing. These might be the only times you have input.
You can always submit a few cover ideas yourself. Just make sure you know what your story is about.
The Opening can State the Problem.
- When the blurb tells us it’s a mystery… (Genre)
EXAMPLE: When a body turns up at a local dam, P.I. Gin Caulfield has to get to the bottom of it, but the bottom can be very deep.
- The Opening gets us into the story Fast/Sets up Problem:
“How long has he been in the water?” I asked, knowing by the bloated, blue body it was too long. What was left of the corpse’s clothes had shredded, exposing large masses of distended flesh.
“More than a week,” said the sheriff’s deputy. “It got itself tangled in the bramble caught against the rocks down there. If you hadn’t noticed it bobbing up, it could have been there a lot longer. Good call, lady.”
I turned away.
No, my friend, it was a lousy call. I hate finding dead bodies. No matter what they show on TV, private detectives don’t like corpses. We like the hunt… the chase… the capture. If everybody is still breathing at the end, great. If somebody’s dead, we hope it’s the other guy… or gal. I have seen my share of bad women. We’re not all Betty Crocker. Damning Evidence by G.B. Pool
In this opening we have a female detective (Genre); she’s probably been around the block a few times (Tone); she has a conscience and a cynical sense of humor. (Tone); the dead body (is the Problem).
- The Opening alludes to the Ending or the Solution/Payoff, so you come full circle when you get to the end.
EXAMPLE of an OPENING: “I already told you. I met the guy in a bar. We got to talking. Somehow he knew I’d been in trouble with the law before.”
EXAMPLE of the ENDING: “Perhaps you would like to speak to a lawyer now, Mr. Harrison?” said the cop. “The Big Payoff” by G.B. Pool
The OPENING shows a guy used to being in trouble. The ENDING sees that he has been talking to a cop about a crime all along, though I never mentioned the other guy was a cop until the last word in the story.
HINT: HOOK the READER with a compelling reason to continue reading; have an “out-of-whack” event; something that changes the protagonist’s world view profoundly and the reader just has to know what happens next.
John Smith didn’t know he was an amnesiac. He discovered that and the fact he was married to two women when one of them turned up dead.
- The opening gives us 4 things that change John’s world-view: he’s an amnesiac, he was married, to two women, one is dead.
- the dead wife drops this into the mystery Genre and sets up the Problem.
The best way to make sure you are opening your story with a BANG is to go over the 5 Elements to any story – Plot, Character, Dialogue, Setting, and the Point of the Story – The Point is the most important. No Point – Why write it?
The POINT should be reflected in your OPENING!
Are you writing about Man against Man, Man against Nature, Man against Himself. Good vs. Evil?
- Use that OUTLINE that lists all the major plot points & characters.
- Ask yourself: Am I covering all the bases?
- Reread the story and ask yourself: Does this make sense?
- Does the Opening grab the reader and make him want to read more?
- Does the Ending fit the Opening?
- Does the Title fit the major theme of the story?
- Does the Cover fit the story?
Take another look at your story and see if these questions have been answered. If it does, you will have a Killer Opening to your story.
The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook will be out this summer on Amazon. It’s a great way to analyze your story whether it’s a novel, screenplay or short story. It will help with your Opening and your Ending and everything in between.
12 thoughts on “How to Write a Killer Opening”
That hook is the most important thing! Great ideas, Gayle!
Thanks, Kate. There are some terrific hooks in your short stories.
Good article, Gayle. AND!!! I’m looking forward to your “instructions” book coming out later this year. Way to go!
I thought I would make the workbook available for those who don’t have a chance to take my workshop live.
A great reminder of how important it is to have a strong opening to a story. You certainly practice what you preach.
Since the opening is what agents and producers read first… make it memorable. They might not go any further if it doesn’t grab their attention.
Good stuff, Gayle. And a lot of good points to remember.
Paul, You sure know how to open a short story. Whether it’s a person or place, you get the reader set up for a fast and furious read.
Great post, and as others have noted, you certainly demonstrate your mastery of the killer opening in everything you write.
Bonnie, You would be amazed how much I learned after teaching that course. One is never too old to learn.
Right on the mark, Gayle, as usual. Started quite a few books this week, and unfortunately put quite a few of them down! Poor openings!
Madeline, There is nothing like a killer opening that makes you want to find out what happens. Writer’s gold.