Monday, October 20, 2008

Writing Advice Monday: Creating Openings with BAM!

Considering my fascination with cooking, and my frequent visits to the Food Network's website (never mind how many hours that channel is on at my house!), this is an appropriate post for today. You have the idea, you know it's good enough for a book, now you have to write a powerful opening.


Creating Openings with BAM!
by Shirley Jump


On the Food Network, there are a few stars that stand out, whose cooking methods have created buzz all over the country because they have a powerful delivery. My favorite of all of the chefs is Emeril Lagasse and his signature “Bam!”


Books that are memorable, that stand out in your memory, also have Bam. They start with a bang, drawing you in and keeping you there, page after page. (At the beginning of Really Something, for example, I start with the heroine throwing rocks and then leaving the hero in the dust, literally. She's a mystery, she's wowed him, and there are a whole lot of questions. It's a bam opening).

You may look at those books and wonder how the author did that, how she got all that power into one little opening. There are a few tricks to the trade to create a powerful opening, as follows:

1. START WHERE THE TROUBLE STARTS: After judging dozens of contests over the years, the number-one mistake I see new writers making is starting off too slow. They ease into the book--and end up leaving the reader wondering when it’s going to get interesting. They often feel they need to pump in all this back story, so the reader will “know” the character.

The point of a book is for the reader to GET TO KNOW the character, as the person’s layers are peeled back one at a time. Don’t start with all that blah-blah about the character’s background. Start with the trouble, the inciting incident that gets the character smack into something new--something life changing.

2. START OUT ACTIVE: If you can, try to avoid using passive phrases in your opening lines. Sometimes, they can’t be avoided, but by and large, if you want a powerful, active opening, you need to use powerful, active words. “She was tired” isn’t nearly as powerful as “Jane Doe took the last step she had in her, then collapsed.”

3. GIVE THE READER A LITTLE LIGHT: Often, the lesson of not inserting back story into the beginning of a book is taken too literally and writers put absolutely zero back story in, leaving the reader with too many questions. What happens is that the characters are two-dimensional because they lack the element that gives them life--a past. You want to HINT at the back story, not lay it all out in twenty-five paragraphs of narrative. Give us a tease, a reason to keep turning the pages to put more of the puzzle together. (If you read the opening to Back to Mr. & Mrs., you'll see the hints to the trouble between the couple, but not really know until the end of the book what has kept them apart all this time).

4. SET THE TONE: What kind of book are you writing? A comedy? A drama? A thriller? Whatever you are writing, that tone should be set from page one. If you’re writing funny, start out funny. If you’re writing a thriller, start out scary. There’s a book by Bill Johnson called “A Story is a Promise.” The basic premise of that book is that your novel is a promise to the reader. What the reader sees on the opening pages should be indicative of the book’s overall tone. Don’t start out funny and then have a serial killer come in and wipe out all your characters in a grisly scene. Make a promise--and stick to it.

5. GIVE US A REASON TO CARE: Give the reader characters that they can care about. Readers latch onto characters. If you want your reader to form an attachment to your character, give them likeable tendencies. They should be flawed human beings whose stories you can relate to. Look at “Lost,” the hit ABC series. In each episode, the writers focus on one of the characters, peeling back a little more of their story. You care about everyone, even Sawyer, because you have seen them cry, mourn, celebrate and struggle over their lives. They are relatable people with strengths and vulnerabilities.

6. LOOK AT GOOD EXAMPLES: Pick up five books (or more) that grabbed you from the beginning and look at the first paragraphs. The first lines. The first five pages. What did the author do in those pages that hooked your attention? Most importantly, what was their opening line? Most authors I know struggle with that opening line, revising it a hundred times before they are happy. It is, after all, the most important line, the one readers look at when they are skimming a book, deciding to buy it. Agent Evan Fogleman once told a group of writers that he knows within three lines if this is a book he wants to see more of or not. After judging a lot of opening chapter contests, I agree with him. I can often tell within a few lines if the author has what it takes. Does that mean that if you don’t have powerful opening lines in your work today you can’t write great opening lines? Absolutely not. Writing powerfully CAN be learned. If you have good basic storytelling skills, all the rest is honing your technique. Think of it in terms of coaching athletes. Many have wonderful raw, natural talent, but they need to have that talent honed and cultivated to fit the dynamics of the team, the game, and the coach. They are taught to use their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.

Writing a powerful opening creates a story that literally comes to life. Whether you are writing novels or articles, powerful openings will make the difference between your piece being read--or being pushed aside for another. Learn to grab your reader from the start with a little Bam! and you’ll be holding his attention for pages to come.

Shirley
Post a comment and I'll choose a winner to receive a copy of either Really Something or Back to Mr. & Mrs., your choice!

16 comments:

  1. Do each of these points go through your head when you write or is it automatic for you?

    I'm off to dig up 5 of my favorite books.

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  2. It's much more automatic for me now (I'm writing book #31 or 32 right now). When I was writing my first few, I had to remind myself to do all this, all the time! But now, the process is intuitive, and I can "feel" it all in my gut. I just *know* I need more conflict, more trouble, more emotion, whatever. Sometimes I might know I need something, but can't quite put my finger on what, and that's when I'll have my critique partner read a section.

    But that's the good thing about writing (or any skill you do over and over again). The more you do it, the more you read and write, the more intuitive the whole thing becomes.

    Shirley

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  3. Do you ever go back and write the BAM opening after you write a bit more of the book to get a better feeling for the BAM, or do you basically have the story all planned out and write the BAM opening right off the top?

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  4. Thanks, Shirley! Much to think about here, and to work on. ;) There's always much for me to work on.

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  5. Blue Socks,

    99% of the time, I have the opening already set in my head. But I do go back, like any recipe, and add more spice to it with each revision of the manuscript. But the opening and ending stay pretty true to their first versions. There's a few words that might change, some emotion that might get pumped up here and there, but by and large, what you read in my finished books is what was there in the beginning. I've had two or three books where I totally rewrote the beginning because the first version didn't work at all, but most of the time, it's exactly what I started with.

    Shirley

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  6. LOL, Patty. I feel the same way sometimes!

    Shirley

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  7. Great advice Shirley, as usual! I think it's a matter of conditioning your brain to look at structure rather than words. Sometime I am so anxious to read the book that I forget to pay attention to how it's been written.

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  8. THank you for the advices. The beginning is always difficult for me. I'll try to include your suggestions :-)

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  9. Glad the advice is helpful to you all! Hope it helps the writing go much better! :-)

    Shirley

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  10. Great advice as always. Now all we need is instruction for a BAM middle and a BAM ending. ; - )

    Sonya

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  11. LOL. I'll have to remember that when I create another handout, Sonya!

    Shirley

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  12. Cathy Shouse4:33 PM

    It's very interesting to study the various ways to have a BAM beginning. Thanks for the tips!

    Cathy

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  13. Debbie9:47 PM

    Hi Shirley! What wonderful advice! As a reader, I guess I pay more attention to what is written as oppposed to how it's written. Now I'm off to check the beginnings of some of my favorite books :-)

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  14. Cathy,

    You're welcome! There's lots and lots of ways to do virtually everything in writing, I've found. Most authors have their own quirky methods, including me :-)

    Shirley

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  15. I think the more you know about writing, Debbie, the more you realize about how the books come together. I knew my husband had been paying attention to all my blathering when we went to see "Star Wars" -- the one where Luke becomes Darth Vader, and my husband says, "you know, I just don't think there was enough motivation for his character."

    I was so proud :-)

    Shirley

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