Gayle will be at the Buena Vista Branch of the Burbank Library on Saturday, October 21, from 1-4 P.M. Drop by and say hello!
by Gayle Bartos-Pool
Whether you are writing a novel, short story or screenplay, you use the same basic literary tools. If you want to give yourself a better chance to have your short story or novel picked up by an agent and then a publisher, you have to get their attention. 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. They have 50-100 manuscripts stacked up and they are looking for any excuse to toss your work into the round file. You want to make your opening a grabber.
What exactly does an Opening Line/Paragraph/Scene in a Short Story, Novel or Screenplay do? I will explain using the Short Story, but much of this pertains to novels or screenplays as well.
- The Opening Line sets the TONE (funny/tragic/etc.), identifies the sub-genre of the story (Noir/cozy/sassy sleuth), states the problem, and hints at the solution. Put one or two of these in that opening line or paragraph.
How do you write a good Opening?
2. The Opening should get the reader’s attention:
Example: I couldn’t believe they found Brad’s body. I thought I buried him deeper. From “A Role To Die For” by G.B. Pool
3. Avoid the clichéd opening. EXAMPLE: Instead of: It seemed like a good idea at the time… or This was the worst day of my life…try: The two-by-four smacked me in the head. And here I thought the guy with the gun was my problem. (It’s the unexpected that grabs attention.)
4. The Opening should establish the RULES of the story; they must be consistent; you can’t start out as a comedy and end up with a philosophical think piece.
5. One way of setting the Tone in a short story is with a Very Strong Voice. You do this by either writing in First Person or using a strong Narrator (Third Person) describing the main character or the problem at hand. The voice will propel the short story. Whereas in a novel you can be more emotional and flowery in your delivery. A strong voice tells the reader what type of story he is reading, is more one-on-one, and holds the reader’s attention. The Omniscient Voice is colder, more remote, and unemotional. Third Person Close is more personal.
EXAMPLE: 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. From “Glitzville” by G.B. Pool
6. The Opening should allude to the ending or the Payoff, so you come full circle when you get to the end.
EXAMPLE – The 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 – The Closing: “Perhaps you would like to speak to a lawyer now, Mr. Harrison?” said the cop. From “The Big Payoff” by G.B. Pool (The poor shlub at the beginning has been confessing to a cop. This isn’t known until the end.)
As An Exercise: Compile Beginnings and Endings of Short Stories or Chapters in a novel. Use yours or the masters. It’s eye-opening.
7. The Opening should hint at, but not necessarily give away, the ending. A good example where this is done well is the opening from the movie Sunset Boulevard. (There is a dead body floating in a pool. It is narrating the story. How he got that way is the plot.)
Part Two will be up in a few weeks to continue this theme… Openings are important, my friends.
Most of the examples used are from my short story collection: From Light TO DARK.
15 thoughts on “Open Your Story with a BANG!”
Openings are the most important part of any writing. Readers will often plow through a sagging middle or shrug when the end disappoints, but without a good beginning, no one will read any further. A good reminder of why that first line needs to be right and how to make it so.
Whether it’s a great character or “a dark and stormy night” opening, it has to grab.
Excellent advice, as always, Gayle. I love your example with the two-by-four and the guy with the gun. Waiting for the rest of THAT story.
Jackie, I just made that 2×4 part up as an example. But it might find its way into a story. It gets your attention… It got his…
As always, excellent and enjoyable post. Rereading and modifying the first line of my latest–think I can make it even more intriguing. I just LOVE, …”I couldn’t believe they found Brad’s body. I thought I buried him deeper.”
When we really think about that opening and how it relates to the rest of the story, we can make it better and better.
Love the reminder! I always plot using my own modified version of screenplay plotting, with a grabber at the beginning. Not all my grabbers grab as well as they should, but it’s always a good way to start any fiction.
I have used my own lessons on all my work ever since I taught the class on The Anatomy of the Short Story. I became my own student. It makes me think about the story in its entirety.
I’m working on a short story and am changing the beginning RIGHT NOW! Thanks for the great advice. Starting strong is actually a reminder, and we can’t have too many of those.
Best of luck with that story.
Thanks, Gayle. Have a great signing on Saturday.
Great post, Gayle. You are such a good teacher of writing fiction – a talent you earned the hard way; by just doing it. I’ll try to remember to grab my reader, or at least halt their action of closing the book! haha
Sometimes the title alone can grab the reader. Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” for instance.
Great post, G.B., with stellar examples. I do love that one about Brad’s body–genius! And thanks for the reminder about comparing openings/endings. I’m gonna do that with a book of short stories.
Since a short story is like an appetizer, you have to be able to finish the entire thing in one or two bites, so it’s good to have the beginning fit the ending.