Friday Fun — Testing your story’s opening

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: How do you test your story’s opening?

wendy-shotWendy Thomas: First of all, I sit on it. After I write my story, I give it time away to do a little bit of maturing. Because I’ve got tech writing in my blood and I feel comfortable with plotting (as opposed to pantsing) once the story and I have both had time to settle down, I go over the beginning with a checklist that looks very much like the rubrics you had to use when writing high school papers.

  • Is there a hook?
  • Have I introduced the hero?
  • Is there conflict?
  • Have I created tension?
  • Is there too much back story?
  • Have I grounded the scene by including descriptions from all five senses?
  • Have I given the reader a reason to turn the page?

Those first few paragraphs can make or break the story. You have to be sure you’ve hit all the highlights and, for me, the best way I know of doing this is to write my first draft, give it time, and then revise with what’s missing according to my list.


headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace:  I’m still learning about beginnings. I’ll probably always be learning about them. The story openings I like best are the ones that make a promise. It doesn’t have to be an overt promise or a specific promise; it just has to make me feel like something is going to happen. More specifically, it has to make me feel like something worth experiencing is going to happen. The first few lines of a story or pages of a book need to whisper in my ear about a secret that will be revealed, a mystery that will be solved, or a discovery that will be made. A good opening captures my interest and my imagination and burrows into my mind, pulsing there like the beat of my heart with a quietly urgent drumbeat of possibility. I know I’ve read a good beginning when I swear I can hear the book calling to me from across the room. And then, dear gods of literature, I pray only that the rest of the story is as good as those first few lines.

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: Interesting question. Let me tell you about the beginning of Just Killing Time, my debut novel in the Clock Shop Mystery series, due out October 6. I wrote a proposal for this cozy series, which included the first three chapters. Those first three chapters got me the gig. The first chapter was from the point of view of the person who got killed–the inciting incident for the entire book (and series). I got a lot of “well written”, but a lot of push back on the beginning once the entire novel was finished. It wasn’t the beginning of a cozy mystery. Too dark, and it set the wrong tone. So, I changed the whole thing, and cut that chapter entirely.

In a previous novel (in a drawer, may see the light of day at some point), I kept getting “slow” and “drags” comments. So I kept cutting the beginning, and cutting the beginning, and cutting the beginning. The final beginning was the old page 50. You have to be ruthless–if you lose the reader at the beginning, or set up a false promise (great analogy Jamie), it doesn’t work.


13 thoughts on “Friday Fun — Testing your story’s opening

  1. In our low-attention span society, provocative openings are paramount. I find, however, that some authors use up their power in the opening and the rest of the book is ‘meh.’ Bait and switch and they know it. Your checklist is perfect and the last bullet point sums it up for me.

  2. Reblogged this on Getting Lit Fit and commented:
    Good advice! Openings are very important. I know I won’t feel too compelled to read something if I’m not grabbed from the start. I especially appreciate Julie Hennrikus’s advice. I have a feeling I’ll have to do a lot of cutting, myself, once my novel gets to the revision phase.

  3. Really good advice. Thank you. Henneke Duistermaat sums it up by saying that the purpose of the (first) sentence is to get someone to read the next. I also agree with Larry though: You have to live up to your promises.

  4. Wendy, love your checklist ~ I use something similar, but am always plagued by one last item on the list—Will anyone give a crap?
    Writers=Introverts and we’re always convinced we’re out in public with our skirt hem tucked into the top of our pantyhose 🙂

  5. A good beginnings for me are the ones that will get me interested not so much about the story itself but how it is written. I love it when authors can make mundane occurrences sounds fun, mysterious and exciting. Stephen King is the master of that. He can make ordinary lives, moments, things, people anything he likes them to be; mostly in scary yet fun cynical yet touching cohesive ramblings.

  6. Too much back story has always been my fatal flaw! I am just about to get stuck into rewriting the opening of my novel so I will definitely be using this checklist. 🙂

  7. Awesome checklist, and good advice. But… now I have to rewrite my first chapter. [just kidding, I’ve been raking it over the coals. I have to put on the developmental editor hat and send scathing critiques to myself. If I don’t do it, who will?]

    But… I’m not living New Hampshire! The advice won’t work for me. (sob)

  8. I loved this!! Starting a novel right now, and really feeling the importance of momentum at the opening of a story. But I’ve also found that the beginning is very easy to go back and rewrite once the whole book is finished — so I’m trying to keep up my OWN momentum even more.

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