Starting out Strong – How to Write a Killer Opening

Whether you are planning to self-publish or go the traditional route, there are two important pieces of writing that you need to pay particular attention to.

The first is what is sometimes referred to as the back of the book marketing copy (which I may cover in a future post), but today I want to talk about your book’s opening.

Whether it’s an agent reviewing submissions or a potential reader browsing through new releases, if you aren’t compelling right from the start they’ll quickly move on—an opportunity lost.

So what makes a good opening?

Ask any group of writers and you’ll likely get a number of different answers, but for my money the answer is always: curiosity.

You have to pique their interest, give them something to ponder. Like the Reese’s Pieces that lured E.T., you have to provide something tasty to entice them toward the next sentence, to the end of paragraph, and if they reach the end of the page … you’ll be in good shape.

Reversing the Process

Because the opening is so crucial, many authors find themselves spinning their wheels early on.

I agree that it requires a lot of effort to come up with a killer opening (I’ve been known to spend 20 – 40 hours on a first paragraph), but it’s usually a waste of time to concentrate too much on your opening right off the bat.

In fact, I suggest you reverse the process; the opening should be the last thing you work on.

I’ve written more than 25 books and none of them start where I thought they would. In Nyphron Rising what was once page one is now page 105, and the opening chapter of Avempartha was cut altogether.

Starting at the Right Place

So how should you go about polishing your opening?

The first question you need to ask yourself is, “Does my book start at the right place?”

Many new authors provide too much setup or background on characters, settings, or both. This is almost always a mistake. Yes, it’s important to give your reader a grounding, but an experienced writer knows there is a whole book to tell all that cool stuff you’ve thought up. If you preload information, you’ll come off looking like a novice. Fight this urge … fight it hard.

I want you to pay particular attention to your first sentence. You’d be surprised how many book bloggers routinely quote it when reviewing your book. This can be fantastic free advertising, if you realize this fact and plan appropriately.

An Example

Here is the opening to my second book, Avempartha.

As the man stepped out of the shadows, Wyatt Deminthal knew this would be the worst, and possibly the last, day of his life. Dressed in raw wool and rough leather, the man was vaguely familiar, a face seen briefly by candlelight two years earlier. A face Wyatt had hoped never to see again. The man carried three swords, each one battered and dull, the grips sweat-stained and frayed. Taller than Wyatt by nearly a foot, with broader shoulders and powerful hands, he stood with his weight distributed across the balls of his feet. His eyes locked on Wyatt like cats stare at mice.

Here are some of the things I was striving to do.

  • I wanted to pique some interest (Who is this man? What happened two years ago? What did Wyatt do that was so wrong?).
  • I wanted to indicate a sense of danger (Why does this man have three swords?).
  • I wanted to convey a foundation of setting (leather, wool, candlelight, swords = Medieval setting).
  • The other man is more than a match for Wyatt (tall, broad shoulders, footing of a fighter).

Hopefully I’ve created enough interest to entice the reader further:

“Baron Delano DeWitt of Dagastan?” An accusation, not a question.

Wyatt felt his heart shudder. Even after he recognized the face, a part of him—the optimist that had somehow managed to survive after all these dreadful years—still hoped the man was only after his money, but with the sound of those words that hope died.

Now I’ve provided some more information … The man is calling him by a different name. Wyatt has been barely surviving for some time and obviously did something that would invite retribution when posing as DeWitt.

Notice that in just three paragraphs I’ve established not only a setting, but provided a small mystery, and even some insight into Wyatt’s past without “spilling all the beans.” I’m holding back details to coax the reader towards subsequent paragraphs.

Learning from Others

Recognizing a great opening comes with experience.

If you are new to writing I suggest that you study other author’s openings. Make a list with one column for good openings, another for those don’t invite the reader to delve further. Use the “Look inside the book” feature of Amazon. Find at least twenty openings that you feel draw you into the story. Then put your own alongside them.  Does it stack up? If not, then you need to work on it some more.

Do you have what you think is a great opening? If so please post it here and I’ll be glad to provide some feedback.

Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron was recently published by Orbit Books.  You can learn more about his Riyria Revelations (an epic fantasy series about two unlikely heroes) at Michael’s blog.

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Drunkendwarf
Drunkendwarf
9 years ago

In the vast Milking Meadow of N’targik all was not well. The cows were all lying down, and an evil storm brewed ominously in the distance. They were usually protected by walls of thick mountains that stretched for miles, and more importantly, an intense magical field…

Opening few lines from my (now finished book). Yes, it’s about cows. And butter. Thankfully it’s in the satirical fantasy category, one which I find is vastly underused.

bbrox123
bbrox123
9 years ago

its perfect i think to help me with my novel problems
I’ve been trying for a novel for over a five months now and i
am trying not to get too mad at my “Writing Skills”.
I have created a story that I am quite proud with but i have no idea
whatsoever how to start.
I find myself also SCARED to start and don’t want to mess up and ruin myself. I have spent a month pouring over your website and have finally subbed.
Do you think I should go on and write the damn story? Or wait… but for what? Will something better come to me? SHOULD I WAIT?!
help me please, I really don’t know what to do anymore!

Jared Hooper
Reply to  bbrox123
9 years ago

 @37002d388ba170a9abfc19b4b30c4d4a:disqus , I would just start writing the story…at least start out with an outline of what you want it to look like. You can always change it later to make it look how you want it to.  

And don’t be afraid of it not ending up as good as you hoped it would…first drafts generally always stink. 😉 That’s why God made second and third and (God-forbid) fourth drafts! The story will only get better the more you fix it and work on it. 🙂

bbrox123
bbrox123
9 years ago

hello i have really enjoyed your website

james leedham
9 years ago

Just put my entire first “chapter” up on my Blog for feedback then cam across this. Wont post the whole thing of course. But here is the oepening 2 paragraphs.

Flames roared through the settlement, scorching the village of Tendril from the world. By morning, nothing would stand that resembled this small collection of homes. Only the charred remains would mark it’s passing into history.

Swept up by the mountain winds, the flames climbed for the heavens, their heat palpable even on the hill from where Jezzrael stood, overlooking this tortured place. He could see the silhouettes of his men scattered around the edges of the blaze,
trying vainly to drag the bodies of the villagers away from the furious flames. They had long since ceased trying to put the fires out. They had got here too late for that.

Steve Redmond
Steve Redmond
9 years ago

It is funny but I often find the opening of the book to be the easiest part to write, because like you said you need to pique the reader’s interest without giving too much away. It is the meatier bits in the middle that often give me trouble.

Kaylee Hammond
Kaylee Hammond
9 years ago

Thank you for the very practical and actionable tips in this article as well as the clear examples in the comments.  I’ve printed both the article and the advice you’ve given as openings are definitely a weak point for me.

jf
jf
9 years ago

In that blurb beside your picture it says your books have been translated into elven languages. You mean 11 languages, right? Either way, cool.

Ben Love
9 years ago

Actually, I was kind of going for comic bookish, sorta’. The POV shifts later to the dwarf “bad guy” a sentence later. Maybe if I just stuck to his POV from the get-go it would be better? Anyway, dialogue’s never been my strong suit: I’ve been told before that my villains either sound like Dr. Doom or Mumm-Ra From Thundercats… I’m working on it. Wrote this one on a whim because a friend thought it would be cool to have a character be a gentleman assassin who is also a dwarf. I’m practicing, though! ANY feedback is welcome.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Ben Love
9 years ago

@Ben – Well if full on comic book – then fine…so it really depends on how far along that line you are looking for. Can’t really say which POV you are best to be in.  Sometimes the one that “knows too much” you have to stay out of so the victim may be the best perspective but again…hard to say. I would suggest focusing more on dialog – especially since I’m not the only one noticing the style. Just try to dial it down and keep in mond the characters motivations and keep true to them.

Sara Abis
Sara Abis
9 years ago

I want to play: 

“I know what you are!” he shouted.

She was walking away, but paused.Right hand instinctively grabbing her forearm to make sure it was covered, fingers pressing into rough wool. She turned slightly, lips pressed together, blood spatter coating her clothes. Her boot smudged the carnage around her. She squinted to see him in the smoky room, illuminated only by the few remaining candles. Leni forced a smile, “I am leaving you alive. I don’t have to.”

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Sara Abis
9 years ago

@Sara – very nice – I’m intriqued – what is she covering up?  You give enough so I know “approximately” what has happened and of course it is unusual for a female lead to be responsible (which I assume she is) for the carnage.  Well done.

Sarah
Sarah
9 years ago

I have the opposite problem of most people. I can write an intriguing intro that sounds like it will lead somewhere promising… but then I have trouble figuring out where that “somewhere” is. Reading over your tips, though, it’s encouraging to know that I follow most of them intuitively. 🙂 Now to work on everything that comes after…

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Sarah
9 years ago

Sarah – do you outline? If not you might want to try that to give you a roadmap to follow. I used to write without one and I found that it got me into places where I had to throw out a bunch of stuff.

Reela
Reela
9 years ago

I find it wonderful you’re offering advice and insight this way. Have you thought about doing a writer’s workshop? I would find it helpful and I’m betting by the amount of requests you have for feedback, others would as well.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Reela
9 years ago

I do a lot of critiquing for people both in and out of some of the local writer’s groups. I’ve not considered doing a writer’s workshop before – but that might be fun.

Keith
Keith
9 years ago

He often confessed to friends that he fantasized his obituary would read, “The world’s oldest living man died today.” In truth, if his death notice appeared in tomorrow’s morning paper, he would not be the sole person a little happier by the thought.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Keith
9 years ago

Very good.  Only minor nit-pits on this one.  I would use the guy’s name. 

Manny often confessed… – just makes it more personable and connects me with this guy who I’m already interested in knowing.

The “intent” of the second sentence is great – the execution is a bit rough- I had to read it two or three times to figure out what you were saying. Might be that you need to ease into it a bit more.  Part of the issue is I was trying to resolve two ideas simultaneously…is he actually old now…or does he just want to die old.  And why would someone be happy that he died old…or is that someone just happy he died?
You have me intriqued though to be sure.

My slight modifications…..

Manny often fantasized that his obituary would read, “The world oldest living man died today.”  Seeing as how he had recently turned one hundred and twenty, he could leave this world a happy man. If the notice did indeed appear in tomorrow’s paper, Manny wouldn’t have be the only person a little happier by the notice.

I may not have the complet intent right – Mayb Manny is still young and therefore not ready to die. But you get where I’m going with this.

I’d love to see the rewrite.

Lyrie
Lyrie
9 years ago

“Many new authors provide too much setup or background on characters, settings, or both”
I have this problem.  I tend to blurt it all out in the beginning instead of letting it unfold “naturally” as the story goes on.  I will try your suggestion of writing the story and polishing the beginning later.  Thanks!

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Lyrie
9 years ago

It is a common problem and something that gest better with practice. The first step is recognizing you do it.  The second to start cutting out things and sprinkling them to a more appopriate place.

Lela
Lela
9 years ago

Here’s the opening paragraph to my current work – it’s my first, as well.”Mey crept toward the darkened home, eyes adjusting to the murky black surrounding her.  Carefully placing each step and watching her feet diligently so as not to give away her presence, she made her way toward the door, which surely would be locked.  No one in town would leave an unlocked door at night; too many thieves around.  She crouched in front of the door, closed her eyes and imagined Garrin was mirroring her movements at the front of the home.”

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Lela
9 years ago

Lela – not a bad start.  A few notes.

1 – Becareful of repeating things you just told me – darkened home – adjusting to black surrounding her.  Seems you can get the impression that it’s dark without repeating.

2 – Trust your reader.  The sentence: “Carefully placing each step and watching her feet diligently so as not to give away her presence, she made her way toward the door, which surely would be locked.” — we don’t need to be told she is doing this to “not give away her presence. We can infer it from the “carefully placed step.   Something like this would clean it up a bit….  “Carefully placing each step as she made her way toward the door. A door she was sure would be locked.

3 – Of course no one would leave an ulocked door with thieves around.  So find a better way to get across that either thieving is up, or this is always a dangerous place.  Then don’t tell us the about people locking the door – we already know this from her assumption it was locked earlier so this just comes across as a) superfulous and b) takes me out of the scene becaus of the statment is ridiculous in that context.

But all in all I’m intriqued – where are they breaking into? and why? Who is Garrin and why is he helping her?  I like those aspects.

Lela
Lela
Reply to  Michael Sullivan
9 years ago

Thank you so much for the feedback.  It is greatly appreciated and will definitely help me in cleaning up this manuscript.  I’ve noticed, even over the last year, since this was written, I have dropped some of these mistakes (like repeating words and paying more attention to the fact that you don’t have to spell everything out).  Again, thank you so very much!

Seth Stone
Seth Stone
9 years ago

Before I even opened this post to read further, my first thought was “curiousity”.  As an avid reader, I can tell you that the way to keep me reading is to hook me in the first couple of paragraphs.  Make me want to see what comes next and I’m yours until the end of the book.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Seth Stone
9 years ago

Thanks for confirming my premise.  Where do I send the check?

Ben Love
9 years ago

Here’s the first couple paragraphs of my newest story; I’d love some feedback. Hope it’s not too long…

The man woke up standing at the base of a pit. His eyes fluttered slightly then opened wide. He looked at his hands chained together above him; his feet chained to the floor. The walls of his circular prison had what looked like a hundred copper pennies scattered across them, long trails of steam hissing out from behind them. He looked up, blinking at the short, thick man standing at the top of the pit. He was dressed like a nobleman on his way to court: dark browns and deep crimsons, an ornate bow tie with a small gem at the center. He looked down, raised his thick eyebrows, and spoke in a slow, deliberate tone.”I’m terribly sorry, and, do believe me, it is nothing personal my good man, but, you see, my employer wants very much for you to suffer before you die. And I, being a dwarf who always keeps his word, feel it my duty to oblige. One can’t always find decent paying work these days, so one must always follow one’s employer’s instructions to a tee. And that, old fellow, is why I am about to push this copper switch down: it will release the mechanized things, you see. They, of course, will advance upon you and enter your body through any orifice that they can wriggle into. After that, I’m sure they’ll find something to eat. They are starving, you know—haven’t had a bite to eat in days. But where are my manners? Would you care for one last cigarette, or perhaps a pint of fine Dwarvish Bitter before you die in a most inexplicably painful way? I keep such things for my victims. No reason we shouldn’t be civil to one another just because I’m about to kill you.”

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Ben Love
9 years ago

Ben, Sorry to say…especially because I know we have talked personally, but this needs some serious attention. You do start off with an interesting scene but I think you have to work on how you portray that scene to make it better. I wouldn’t worry about it just now – wait until you finish your work then come back to this at the end  (as I mentioned in my post). 

The biggest problem I see is the lack of insight to the characters that this is happening to.  There is a lot of description about his surroundings (and the descriptions are somewhat stilted and bland). We are getting no impression of how his unusual circumstance is affecting the man. For instance instead of telling us he looks at his restrained hands and feet can’t we hear about any pain caused from the bindings?  Also I think the dialog comes off comic bookish.  Now it may be that was the intention.  Which if it was – good job. But without the context this might ellicit some eyerolls. I couldn’t help but have the old campy Batman in my mind’s eye when reading this. 

In general, you should fight the urge or the “bad guy” to explain what he is going to do to someone before it happens. It’s fine if the victim overhears him giving instructions to a third party – but one rarely explains his whole plan to the victim.

Sorry if this seems harsh, please take it in the spirit is offered which is to improve the piece.

Dkowert
Dkowert
9 years ago

Your books have been translated into “elven” languages?  Now THAT is cool!!!!!  🙂  Good advice, sire.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Dkowert
9 years ago

@Dkowert – I can’t fix the typo — but that would be cool. That obviosuly should have been 11 so far. But my agent thinks she can still get another 7 or 8…we’ll see.

$20519305
$20519305
9 years ago

A good exercise for any writer is to pull classic novels or books you have loved and simply read the first line and see how the greatest writers in the world have lured in their readers. By studying the masters, you can hone your own craft.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  $20519305
9 years ago

While I do agree to a certain extend Paul, some classics write in a style that no longer applies to the reading habits of today. For instance the opening of a Tale of Two Cities would never make it in today’s environment.

sweetsixty
sweetsixty
9 years ago

An interesting article and one to which I can relate. I don’t yet have the opening that I want, but I do know that books that I enjoyed the most always began with a sentence that left me dying to know what was going on!

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  sweetsixty
9 years ago

Moved under sweetsixy’s post

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  sweetsixty
9 years ago

Yes it is extremely important.

Riviera
Riviera
Reply to  sweetsixty
9 years ago

I feel the same. The worst type of book to read starts at the beginning and sends you to sleep with a blow by blow account of everything. I do think you have to follow through quickly enough though. Having too many mysteries and threads that take a long time to be understood is just as bad.

Phil the Drill
9 years ago

“Josha, cheek still burning from his mother’s slap, waved down the witch finders as they mounted their camels to head back into the open desert.”

This is an opening I may use for a novel I’m outlining at the moment. 

I really like the idea of finding several published openings and comparing them.  I think I’m going to do that.

Great insight!

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Phil the Drill
9 years ago

Moved under Phil’s post.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan
Reply to  Phil the Drill
9 years ago

I like our opening Phil – it would get me to go on further.

Kristiana
Kristiana
8 years ago

I read the back cover of a book I’m considering with one eye closed because I’m so afraid of getting too much of the story. I would rather skip it. That said, I read the opening of a novel more carefully than I read any other parts. I don’t want to miss a thing as I go along, and so much groundwork is laid in the first chapter.

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