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.
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