How to Open a Work of Fiction—Part One

Every writer’s toolkit should include best practices for quickly drawing readers into the fictive universe. To this end, a large body of craft literature exists on the subject of novel and short story openings.

Some tell us, Go for the visceral punch. Others say, Grab the reader’s attention in the first sentence, Arouse her curiosity, Enrapture her with language. Opinions abound. This month and next I’ll gather prevailing thoughts on what constitutes effective openings.

Let’s get started on starters. In the past I’ve mentioned Larry Brooks and Christopher Vogler as guides to structure. They’re pertinent voices on the topic of openings as well.

Brooks is specific about how a novel should begin. The opening scene or scenes, he says, must contain a hooking moment, which has to take place within the first few pages. When it appears, it should be arresting and emotionally resonant in order to capture the reader’s commitment to the work. In Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for example, the hook is a dead body on the floor of the Louvre with a cryptic message written in blood.

For Christopher Vogler, the elucidator of the Hero’s Journey as the infrastructure of fiction, the opening must show us the protagonist’s ordinary world. The opening culminates in the call to adventure, the inciting incident.

Jeff Gerke, author of The First Fifty Pages, and contributor to the Writer’s Digest blog (November 25, 2014), covers openings extensively. He presents four approaches to beginning a successful novel:

  1. The Prologue Beginning

Gerke defines the prologue as an episode that pertains to your story but includes the hero at a time well before the story proper begins or not at all. He acknowledges that many experts discourage the prologue because, they reason, it delays the main action. Gerke’s position is pragmatic: “If your prologue engages the reader, it’s a good thing, and if your prologue disengages the reader, it’s a bad thing.”

A prologue can help your story by establishing the origin of the situation confronting the reader in the main story. It can also arouse interest by setting a time bomb by hinting at the danger that will assail the hero.

In the Prologue to Jurassic Park Michael Crichton ominously presents the consequences of man’s interference in nature with the chilling assurance that nature, if not man, will prevail.

The Prologue to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours occurs in 1941 when Virginia Woolf, the author of Mrs. Dalloway, commits suicide by drowning herself in the Ouse. The novel then shifts to New York City at the end of the twentieth century and moves through time and space to intertwine the lives of three women: Woolf, Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan (a modern-day version of Mrs. Dalloway). Using the Prologue as a starting point, the author creates a riveting depth of history and backstory.

  1. The Heroic Action Beginning

In a heroic action beginning, the hero is onstage, doing something active and interesting related to the launching of the core story. Nearly every James Bond story begins with 007 performing some amazing act of derring-do.

Some books lend themselves naturally to this kind of beginning. If the protagonist is a superhero when the story begins, you can start the novel by having her save the earth, says Gerke. Before attempting this approach, however, consider how likely it would be for the protagonist to engage in heroic action. Don’t force it.

  1. The In Medias Res Beginning

In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.” This opening starts at a point deep in the story and then reverts to an earlier, quieter part. It’s the opposite of the prologue beginning.

No less a figure than Aristotle advocated this approach, perhaps after reading Homer’s Odyssey. There the opening traces the efforts of Telemachus to assert control of his household before the scene shifts to Odysseus as a captive on Calypso’s island, where he has languished for seven years.

The movie script Battle: Los Angeles also employs this technique. It begins with military helicopters flying over a Los Angeles under attack from aliens. We see the faces of some soldiers, but we don’t know who they are. Then the movie skips back twenty-four hours and we’re well into the plot before we get back to that helicopter moment, but by then we know what’s going on.

The in medias res technique shows the main character alive and well in a future moment, and so dissipates the tension when she gets into danger. However, once you arrive at and surpass that opening moment, everything changes and the suspense escalates.

  1. The Frame Device

Using a frame device is another way of opening (and closing) your novel or story. Your narrative is bookended at the beginning and end by a story outside the main plot.

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights uses this technique. The narrator, a stranger named Lockwood, arrives seeking refuge from a storm. He hears the tragic story of Catherine and Heathcliff from Nelly, the longtime housekeeper of Wuthering Heights.

Another example is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In this famous novella (and inspiration for the film Apocalypse Now), an anonymous narrator recounts the story about Marlow’s journey up the Congo River and his encounter with Kurtz.

The instinct of most writers is to skip the frame and go straight to what’s inside it, but there are good reasons to use a frame device, says Guerke. In Wuthering Heights, for example, Lockwood provides a needed objective perspective of events unfolding among the Earnshaws and Lintons. Further, Conrad achieves something special by showing growth in the frame story, that is, Marlow’s tale changes the anonymous narrator’s attitude toward imperialism.

Some good advice from Gurke: Approach your opening from a strategic standpoint. Consider your choices and then choose the beginning that fits naturally with the story you want to tell. That way you have a better chance of maximizing your novel’s potential and engaging the reader from the very beginning.

To be continued…

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