I never LOVE a book unless I LOVE the opening. I even keep a page on Adventures in YA Publishing with openings I love. But recently, I've been putting thought into what makes me love some openings more than others.
It comes down to a combination of urgency, voice, and sensory immersion.
I touched on urgency when I discussed the use of a ticking clock in fiction. The ticking clock is one method of providing urgency, but there are others.
Urgency, in a nutshell, is the breadcrumb trail an author lays down to keep your mind on the danger, mystery, or intrigue in a story. It's the series of questions strategically posed to keep us reading, the what, when, where, how -- and most of all, the WHY.
Think about it. We've all read books where the action is relentless and we frankly don't give a damn. The connection is missing. All we're getting is a laundry list of stuff: this happened and then this happened and then this happened. But laundry lists don't haunt us. Characters do. We want to know why they act, how they are going to react, what they will do next.
Ask any two experts to define voice, and they will provide a different answer. There's also a lot of confusion between voice and style. I may be in a minority, but I like to think of voice as something unique to the character or narrator of a work of fiction, and style as something unique to the author.
Voice is what gets us into the character's head.
Often it's the voice of the main character herself, but it can just as easily be the voice of the narrator. Either way, this is what gives us insight into the character's inner world. It's what shows us what the character feels and sees, and tells us WHY she thinks a certain way.
J.A. Souders did a great post about a writing exercise to engage eleven senses instead of the more common five. Instead of thinking merely about sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing, the exercise suggests writers engage time, temperature, pain, balance, motion, and direction in their passages, too. It's true that these are the senses that really ground us into a story and make us connect.
Using Voice, Urgency, and Sensory Immersion to Kick Start Your Story
A story can drop-kick you into action, but if you don't care about the character, you have no one to root for. Taking a long time to build character, on the other hand, can leave us yawning. There's a delicate balance. And the more quickly the author establishes that balance, the better.
Take The Replacement, it opens like this:
I don't remember any of the true, important parts, but there's this dream I have. Everything is cold and branches scrape the window screen. Giant trees, rattling, clattering with leaves. White rain gutter, the curtain flapping. Pansies, violets, sunflowers. I know the fabric pattern by heart. They're a list in my head, like a poem.There's a blank line after this, a brief separation to let us know that time has switched, and suddenly we are at a school that's having a blood-drive in the cafeteria. There's a blur of ordinary but slightly unusual teenage life, enough to let us know these are interesting teenagers, not interchangeable generic teens. And within a page and a half, Yovanoff gets to the heart of the story: "Would anybody really take something that fundamentally sucks over something good?"
I dream about fields, dark tunnels, but nothing is clear. I dream that a dark shape puts me in the crib, puts a hand over my mouth, and whispers in my ear. Shh, it says. And, Wait. No one is there, no one is touching me, and when the wind comes in around the edges of the window frame, my skin is cold. I wake up feeling lonely, like the world is big and freezing and scary. Like I will never have anyone touch me again.
We already know the narrator is the replacement child. We know he dreams about it, but we suspect from the amount of detail that the dream is really memory. We know Mackie worries that no one will love him. We know these things from the book's title and those two, brief paragraphs. And we wonder, will the replacement child have someone to touch him after all?
Within the next paragraph, we are introduced to someone that Mackie wants to touch:
I didn't answer. I was looking at Alice Harms, which was a habitual behavior, kind of like a hobby.Like magic, we know Mackie doesn't have Alice but he wants her. And (kind of Twilightish, I admit) he is sickened by her blood. Because he isn't human. He's the replacement child, and the iron in her blood is lethal.
"People don't always know what they should want," he says as he watches Alice moving toward him.
Are you hooked? I am.
Now some of this is misleading. The novel is more complex, more rich, and more original even if many of the elements of life in a city made of iron and toxic metals are the same that Holly Black also dealt with in her Tithe series. But the point is that Yovanoff has defined the problem in less than 500 words. She's even engaged all the senses, introduced the school setting and four unique supporting characters, plus hinted at the musical undertones of the story. And it bears repeating--all in less than 500 words.
She breaks a number of "rules" to do this. She starts with those two prologueish paragraphs in present tense, then she switches to past tense. That can leave you a disoriented. It is a little jarring. She introduces a lot of characters quickly. Two too many, maybe.
Her opening isn't perfect. But it is brilliant, because I don't care if it's not perfect. I'm in, I'm reading, and I'm hooked.
The Faster the Better
Take a look at some of the other opening passages I've added to our Great Openings page.
I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful. He wouldn’t speak much, but he’d be breathing hard as he took off his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans. He’d wear white pants and he’d be so gorgeous I’d almost faint. He’d take my clothes off too. He’d whisper, ‘Tessa, I love you. I really bloody love you. You’re beautiful’ – exactly those words – as he undressed me.
I sit up and switch on the bedside light. There’s a pen, but no paper, so on the wall behind me I write, I want to feel the weight of a boy on top of me. Then I lie back down and look out at the sky. It’s gone a funny colour – red and charcoal all at once, like the day is bleeding out.
Jenny Downham, Before I Die
The human-instinct for self-preservation is strong. I know, because mine pulls at me, too, like the needle on a compass. And everybody--I've been reading some philosophy--everybody seems to agree that the instinct and responsibility of all humans is to take care of themselves first. You have the right to survive. If you can.
Nancy Werlin, The Rules of Survival
The first time I heard my dead mother's voice, there was a logical explanation.It was the middle of the night, naturally--that's when ghosts tend to visit. I woke from a familiar nightmare, gulping down air, my face damp with sweat, my heart hammering, visions of blue and green slipping away as I grabbed darkness gratefully instead.Rune Michaels, The Reminder
The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.
There are so many, many more. Far more than I have in the Opening Passages page, which doesn't contain even a fraction of the openings I love. But I'm working on adding on.
Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold. Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful. But nothing had been beautiful since Peris turned pretty. Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s only for three months and two days.
Scott Westerfeld, Uglies
What do you think? What are your favorite openings? What do you look for? What is it that draws you in and keeps you feverishly turning pages?