Tina Ann Forkner
There is a lot of buzz around town about a new business that recently opened in my community. From what I hear, it’s already booming just a few weeks in. This new business is a cocktail lounge, and while I’m not familiar with what it takes to open a lounge, I couldn’t help but notice that the owners spent a great deal of time preparing for the grand opening. Every time I passed by, they were working on making it look good. They knew that if they wanted customers to return, they would need to plan a fabulous opening that would make customers want more.
The same can be applied to the opening of a novel. If you want a reader to continue reading, then your opening must be grand.
When I say grand, I don’t mean complicated. I just mean the opening needs to succinctly give the reader a taste of what’s to come and make them want more. I have had the pleasure of being a judge in several writing contests, and I have noticed that most openings of unpublished manuscripts are lackluster and do very little to set the tone or hook you in. In fact, if I were not a judge, I would not read past any of those openings. That’s not good news since in the publishing field, writers must grab an editor from the first page, if not the first paragraph – even the first sentence – or your time is up.
If your beginning is not grand enough, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve written the rest of the story. The editor will never know. So how can you make sure that your opening is grand? Here are five steps to help guide you.
Establish a Sense of Place
Just like the grand opening of the cocktail lounge, one of the things you need to give your readers is a sense of place. Some people would call it ambiance. If you walked into the cocktail lounge on opening night, you would have felt the vibe based on the setting around you. It has a slightly historical downtown feel that is upscale while instantly making you feel welcome.
This is what you want to do in your novel, as well. Give us details that make us feel like we are there, but not too many. Use a few key words and sentences to set the tone, hinting at what is to come. You can start wide with a setting and focus in on where the character is. Perhaps you will show us the expanse of the city and immediately focus in on the barstool where your character is drinking a martini and staring at himself in the mirror. Or maybe we are at the kitchen table and there are two place settings, but only one person. Wherever you start, you want the reader to be there too.
Introduce an Interesting Character
Another thing the cocktail lounge did was hire good employees to represent them. When you go there, not only do you get a sense of ambiance as soon as you walk in, but the employees are engaging and friendly, dressed in a way that evokes the personality of the cocktail lounge itself. You instantly want to talk to them, for them to make your drink, perhaps especially that one server with the playful look who seems to be in charge.
It’s the same for your story. Make sure that your main character does or says something that makes you want to know more about them. You don’t have time to describe your character in detail during the opening, but you can make them ask a question or do something interesting, or even recall the hint of a memory that makes the reader want to get to know the character(s) better. Perhaps she has a bad case of bedhead, bad breath, and can’t remember her own name, but she knows she needs a skinny soy vanilla latte with two shots of espresso. What the author wants is to present a snapshot of the character that is intriguing or engaging, but not a detailed description.
Entice the Reader with Action
If you walk into the cocktail lounge on opening night, stuff is happening all around you. It’s bustling, you are catching snippets of conversations all around, and that guy in the corner looks like he might propose to the woman sitting across from him even though the way she’s staring so hard at her plate that she looks like she wants to run.
In a novel’s grand opening, you need some action, as well. It can be big, but it doesn’t have to be. Something just needs to be happening. Is your character slamming down the phone? Are the wheels of the toppled bicycle spinning? Is someone drumming their fingers loud enough to annoy the woman across the room? You want the reader to wonder why someone slammed the phone down, why the wheels are spinning, and what is really annoying the woman across the room. Whatever action is happening in the opening scene, you want it to entice the reader to wonder about what has just happened and what is going to continue happening in the story. Bring the reader into the action early and make her feel it enough to want to keep reading.
Organize the Beginning
This is probably the most important aspect of a story opening. If I walk into the new cocktail lounge on opening night and can’t tell if I’m in a bar, a doctor’s office, or a nail salon, I’m not going to stay. Even if the energy is buzzing, things are happening that intrigue me, and the people around are interesting, I’m gone.
If an editor or agent can’t figure out what is happening, they aren’t going to keep reading your novel, either. Readers need to know where they are at and have a hint of where they are going. I think that many writers inadvertently create a confusing story opening because they are afraid of giving up too much information too fast, but in my experience as an author, we usually have the opposite problem. We don’t have to tell the whole story in the beginning, but as an editor once told me, giving enough information to orient the reader is like giving them a flashlight to show them the way without illuminating everything around them.
Hook the Reader
The hook is paramount. I can’t say it enough. If I leave the cocktail lounge and nothing has happened that I want to come back to, the business has lost me, but if there is a chalkboard announcing an upcoming happy hour and a secret grand prize, I would want to go back to see what the prize is.
That’s exactly how you want your readers to feel after the opening.
A great hook is like the attractive man or woman in the corner of the cocktail lounge waving a one-hundred-dollar bill at the reader. What is it about them? Are they going to give that money away? That’s when they crook their finger at the reader to follow, just before they slip out the backdoor. In your novel’s beginning, what morsel can you give that makes the reader want to follow you through that door? Maybe you don’t tell the secret, but you let the reader know there is one. This is where you spill the breadcrumbs that make them want to read the whole thing.
What are examples of some of the best openings you've read?
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About Tina Ann Forkner
Tina Ann Forkner wrangles words on the pages of her novels and kids in the classroom as a substitute teacher. She lives in Wyoming with her husband, who knows when to wear a cowboy hat, and three teenagers who never do (even if she thinks they should). She is the author of five novels including Rose House, Waking Up Joy, and The Real Thing.
Learn more about Tina at her website: www.tinaannforkner.com