Straight talk from the sisters about blood, sweat and ink
5 Common Story Openings Done Wrong
Last month it occurred to me that a handful of basic opening scenarios crop up in a large number of stories. I’m not talking about those tropes we’ve all heard about (alarm clocks ringing, watching the sun rise, or waking up from a dream), but situations and specific types of events writers use to grab the reader’s attention.
Sometimes these situations fit the story perfectly. Other times, they go wrong and leave the reader feeling dissatisfied.
I’ve isolated five hugely popular yet potentially problematic openings:
1. Death Comes Knocking:
A character died. It might be a character we just spent the first chapter getting to know, or someone we will learn more about as the story develops.
It can work as a great initial story hook because any death is shocking. The reader wants to know who the person is, why they died, and who or what killed them.
In a murder mystery, the death is always integral to the plot, but in some cases, death is used as an element of backstory, and that is when this opening tends to go wrong. The writer must establish the relevance of the death to the plot and the surviving characters. If they don’t do this, the reader might stop caring about the death, or the death might come across as gratuitous. Pacing is another problem with a death opening: it sets high expectations. If the writer isn’t keeping up the pace, reader interest is likely to dwindle.
2. Last Calls and Beer Goggles:
This hook uses some aspect of the big night out. It often teams drinking too much with risky or morally questionable behaviors. It’s the stupid one night stand, the firing due to drunkenness, or some other bad decision the character makes in the heat of the moment.
It works as a hook by revealing the protagonist’s mental state. It shows the reader that the character is flawed and it makes them appear more human.
It goes wrong when the character comes off as too flawed, too morally void, too unlawful, or as too much of a stereotype. In short, the character becomes a big, sloppy, self-loathing mess, and the reader feels nothing but scorn and contempt for them.
3. Overly Exaggerated Emotions:
Fear, resentment, family fighting and lots of it! This opening is packed with melodrama and volatile character interaction. It can also show up as the depressed, almost catatonic characters, the ones that drag themselves around on the pages in slow motion.
It works as an opening when it builds sympathy for the characters and their difficult situation.
It goes wrong when the author dumps too many emotional complaints and conditions all at once, and the reader ends up feeling like the character’s therapist. Plus, it’s hard to write emotionally unstable characters in a believably way. And it’s distracting when the characters suddenly change personality traits without a compelling reason. When handled badly, this opening will not generate any reader empathy and it just feels forced and fake.
4. Bucolic Wonder:
Green grass, peaceful blue skies, and the sounds of a bubbling spring fill the air. The protagonist enjoys total happiness and the love of family and friends while dancing in the ever-present sunshine. It’s all birds, bunnies and impromptu song and dance numbers.
It works as a opening because most readers would love to find such a magical place to live in. It goes wrong when it lingers too long, then it starts to get sticky sweet (a bit like the description of this paragraph). There’s no tension, no conflict, and everything is too perfect. This opening needs to show (or at least hint at) a creditable story complication, the evil hiding behind the mask of beauty, and that shake-up needs to happen pretty fast. Without some discord even a paradise grows dull.
5. Out On A Limb:
This opening has the characters confronted by an inescapable complication. The situation requires the characters to either rise and conquer the problem or to reveal their faults and fail.
It works as an opening because it forces the characters into action and establishes their core personalities in a stressful situation. It starts to go wrong when the scale of the opening complication is out of proportion with the rest of the story. An action packed book can carry off a huge opening event that impacts thousands! But in a quiet story, the event should have a smaller scale. Another problem with this opening is some writers will shift events out of sequence by putting an action-packed scene from the middle of the book at the beginning to artificially contrive a big opening complication, and that misleads the reader. When the story opens with a big energetic event the reader expects more.
So there you have it! Five stock openings that have been time-tested and used by thousands of writers before you. They can work well, but they also have some specific ways they can go horribly wrong. Have you ever used one of these? I have! My current project uses number 5, but I’ve also used variations of 1, 3 and 4 at different times. If you can think of any other examples, I’d love to hear them. Please share them in the comments.
Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.
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