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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Openings

   
Author Topic: Openings
mbwood
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Hello,

Kathleen encouraged me to post the following (which I had previously posted in the wrong location - oops!).


Openings

“It was a dark and stormy night...”

This opening will guarantee rejection. Why?

First, it is a tired, tired cliché
.
But that’s not its only sin, for it also uses passive voice construction. The setting acts upon the characters.

Third, it is a redundant phrase. When are nights not dark? Especially a stormy night. Duh!

Fourth, it is vague, lacking in specificity. What kind of storm? Is it a snowstorm, windstorm, hailstorm, rainstorm, thunderstorm? Well, what is it?

Lastly, stories are about people, and to start with setting requires a very strong reason rather than creating a mood or conflict, something the reader can care about.

Well, whaddya think?
MBW


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Osiris
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Agree 100%, for all the reasons you pointed out. It is lesson best learned early.
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WouldBe
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It was....

Is it a past or present storm?


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Robert Nowall
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Most of all, it's used. First by S. Bulwer-Lytton (hence the contest), then by many others, and most recently by Snoopy.
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Tiergan
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I'll give you the first 2 points.
But for discussion.
Regarding the 3rd and 4th I will offer my thoughts.

I don't find it redundant at all. Night is not always dark, meaning there are different layers of dark, and storms. In fact, too me, the instant I read it my mind is reeling with images of a pitch black skies, broken with streaks of lightning. So as far as atmosphere, it brings an instant, INSTANT connection. Yes, I may not be right in the initial type of storm, but I am willing to wait for the next sentence to let me know if it was snow streaking across the black canvas of night, or lightning or what ever the case may be.

The last: yes, stories are about people, and I believe those make the strongest stories. But, 1 line or 2 lines of the weather, don't bother me, in fact they ground me, and let me know what and how the character reacts to what nature throws his way. Does he cower, does he dance in the rain? Does he melt? But, and it is a big BUT, it better be part of the story and there for a reason.

It is interesting, because I came up with 2 stories immediately I would do with this. Would an editor throw them away? lol, probably, lets make that defiantly, they do have the rules also. But the first story, and I only did the paragraph to see, had my two girls enthralled, throw, throw in girl struggling in that storm, and they were quite mad that I hadn't written the piece.
So know your audience.

Just thoughts.


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genevive42
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I remember a humorous fantasy book, Castle Perilous by John DeChancie, I think. It started: "It was a stark and dormy night."

I think it can be used for humorous effect, regardless of what rules it breaks. Everything is fodder for humor.


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Natej11
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It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were on a bridge. One jumped up and said, "Tell us a story, Ed!"

So the story begins...

It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were on a bridge. One jumped up and said, "Tell us a story Ed!"

So the story begins...


Kind of a fun pointless game I used to play with my siblings when we were trapped somewhere for a while.

But as for the line as a story beginning yes, I agree to all points .


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Please feel free to use this topic to discuss other openings that don't work and why (such as the favorite "waking up" opening).

Other possibilities for discussion might be the fight scene when you don't know who anyone is, and the talking heads (again, when you don't know who anyone is).

Let's rip 'em to shreds, people!


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philocinemas
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I agree that this is not a very good opening, unless someone were purposely playing off of it being a cliche like L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. However, it is not passive voice, which requires a two-part verb such as was hit, is liked, will be given, etc. An easy way of spotting this is if one can either find or insert the word "by" shortly after the clause construction.

Sentences with forms of "be" are considered static - they tend to be explanatory instead of active, unless in dialogue. They are often a necessary device in storytelling but should be used sparingly, like adverbs.


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Ken S
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If you were telling the story in 1st person, you could have your character acknowledge just how often it gets used:

"It was a dark and stormy night. I know, I know what it sounds like, but it is what it is."

Oh, and the waking up opening. I would argue that you could get away with it if there was *Absolutely* no other place for the story to begin. Frankenstein told from the monster's point of view for example.

[This message has been edited by Ken S (edited July 03, 2011).]


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rstegman
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It was a dark and stormy night. The weather report said clear for several days and their watches said it should be noon.
They sat at the edge of a bubbling cauldron that was once a large city.
Blankenship looked to the others. "I guess today is not going to be a good day. Angry clods of grass and several rocks and sticks flew his way, reminding him that there was a time and place for humor and this was not the time.

[This message has been edited by rstegman (edited July 03, 2011).]


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Osiris
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Another way to get away with a cliche is to retain the idea but not the wording:

"Gunmetal clouds roiled beneath the midnight canvas of the sky, raining bullet-sized drops of water on the battlefield. With an uneasy armistice in effect..."

I did use a lot of adjectives there, but I think the stronger verbs(roiled,raining) help mask the use and make them more palatable. So we dressed up a pig in an evening dress and lipstick... Whether it still resembles a pig or a is transformed into a maiden is the reader's call.


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mrmeadors
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BUT, using Osiris's example (not picking on you! just using you ), another thing to be wary of is point of view and its limitations. If O's example was from a soldier's POV on that night, how could he tell what color the clouds were in the dark of midnight? If something like that happened in the very first sentence of your story, doesn't bode well.

I would say an opening that might get you in trouble is one that is too melodramatic. Drama can be effective, you can draw someone into a story that way, but there is a fine line past which you could be laying it on too thickly. "It wasn't supposed to end this way. I could have had it all..." or something to that effect.

Melanie


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philocinemas
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"The night was sultry."
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genevive42
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philo, that's a perfect opening for a noir-type story. There could be better, but really, that one set a scene in my head immediately. Talk about connotations.
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philocinemas
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It was a joke - a great scene from Throw Momma from the Train where Billy Crystal's character had been trying to find the right novel opening for months, saying various attempts aloud over and over again, and Momma, played by Anne Ramsey, calmly says, "The night was sultry," and then berates him with insults about his writing ability.
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mbwood
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Well, I started this topic at Kathleen's urging, and I must say I'm impressed with the responses. Y'see, I put this piece up as a lesson on what not to do, however, it's evolving into what kind of openings work.


May I offer a suggestion? An opening should involve, engage, interest the reader right from the start, preferably in the first sentence (not always possible). And how does one do that? Let me quote a well-known author...


'We ask readers to pay money and spend time and invest their emotions in stories about people who do not exist. We must somehow, since we cannot make them real, make these characters matter. And what we do to accomplish this is give them an intense and understandable desire or ambition or need. The audience does not share the need, but comprehends it and cares about the character.'
Orson Scott Card

I agree.

Remember the first rule of writing... Write!
MBW

[This message has been edited by mbwood (edited July 03, 2011).]


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Osiris
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quote:
BUT, using Osiris's example (not picking on you! just using you ), another thing to be wary of is point of view and its limitations. If O's example was from a soldier's POV on that night, how could he tell what color the clouds were in the dark of midnight? If something like that happened in the very first sentence of your story, doesn't bode well.

Yes, good point, one should be wary of POV limitations. Maybe I should have thrown in a few artillery flashes lighting up the sky. This wouldn't be the first time I find myself falling into one trap while trying to avoid another. I think the point holds though, that you can avoid a cliche by rephrasing it.

I think the best openings introduce character, conflict, time and place to the reader. I've never, ever, written a 'setting' opening. I just don't like them.

[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited July 03, 2011).]


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mrmeadors
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I've tried a setting open before, but they just never seem to work. Now mind you, I love Tolkien's "In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit." where he goes on to describe the hole, but note that the first line is intriguing because it has the action "lived" and most of all it leaves you wondering, 'What the heck's a hobbit?" since he says it so non-chalantly. I think his voice is such that it makes the immediate description of what the hole is or isn't interesting to read, it draws you in. But you would have to be exceptional to be able to pull that off nowadays.
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mbwood
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Using a setting as an opening?

Yes, it can be done, however, it's not as easy as the protagonist with a problem, an action sequence, etc. The trick is to start with something that makes the reader curious, thus inviting them to read on (maybe the word 'inviting' is on the weak side).

Since I read a lot of mainstream novels (in addition to SF), I've come to admire the 'setting openings' of James Lee Burke. The opening to his novel 'Neon Rain' is done very well and is used as an example in some literature classes. However, what is often overlooked in that novel, are the final few pages, which have some of the most evocative passages describing the setting. Well worth a read.

Remember the first rule of writing... Write!
MBW

[This message has been edited by mbwood (edited July 03, 2011).]


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Osiris
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quote:
is intriguing because it has the action "lived" and most of all it leaves you wondering, 'What the heck's a hobbit?"

Exactly, though Tolkien uses description, he still underpins his sentence with a strong verb "lived" and noun "hobbit".


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genevive42
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quote:
It was a joke

I realized that. But I just got a picture and had a vision of how it could be used effectively. I think it shows that idea of 'one man's trash is another man's treasure'. Maybe any opening, no matter how seemingly bad, can be turned into something good when put to the right use.

In fact, I once framed and ugly picture for a client. He chose one of the ugliest frames in the shop. When it was finished, it looked fantastic. That was early in my framing career and I learned that everything has its proper home somewhere - no matter how ugly you think it is.

So maybe the same thing is true story openings. Even the ugly ones, when properly used, can be made great.


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walexander
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It's an irony that not till I started to tear apart sentence structure that I would ever have cared about a phrase like, "It was a dark and stormy night..." For a sentence that probably breaks all the rules, it's fame shows that immortality can be built with an illogical yet logical structure of words. It's legacy amongst parents and friends starting nighttime bed and ghost stories will continue long past our lifetime. Did I as a kid ever care that it was properly phrased or structured?--no--all I cared about was the story that was to follow. As a father did I care that it was repetitive to use the same phrase to start my daughters ghost stories--no. All I ever cared about was did it simply set the stage for the story to come. Now as a writer I can only dream that I have a line whether properly structured or not, live down through history to allow so many storytellers to start setting fire to there own imagination.

Yes--I could jump on the band wagon about how imperfect this sentence is to the book of grammar, but I believe in it's imperfection their is a resonance that strikes home to human beings who in their nature still hold the title of best imperfect perfect.

Just my 2cents,

W.

[This message has been edited by walexander (edited July 03, 2011).]


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Tiergan
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The Irony, the irony!

So I just started reading this book, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness #1: Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver.

And well, the first sentence has the character, jolt awake.

So the question is, Do I continue reading, or not?

On one hand I didn't spend much money, as I got it at a library sale. On the other hand there are 5 books to the series it looks like, so it most have had some success despite the "cliche" opening. And I hear good things about it.

The answer is: Of course I will keep reading. I have the book, so I will read until I can not reads no more. I guess cliche openings dont bother me at all, its just one line.

I will say there was a book I was reading, and I was really into, then all of a sudden, one of the characters said something like, "And may god have mercy on us all." I saw it coming a mile away. I dropped the book then and there. I tried to read on a little later, but then everything seemed cheesy from that point out, like a "B" rated movie. So I gave it the worst fate of a book in my hands, I gave it away. I save nearly every book I buy, good or bad, I like to collect. That was to this day the only book I know that I gave away. I have a dime novel of Dracula, that has fire damage(before I bought it) but I won't throw it away even though I have other prints of it. It sets the mood, giving me the creeps just looking at it.

Cliche beginning or not, I will at least begin reading it.


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philocinemas
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In truth, it is all a matter of confidence in the writer - on the part of the editor or on part of the reader. The argument is that the editor will be more likely to stop reading due to lack of confidence, and thus there will never be a reader. Sometimes confidence only requires a name despite the opening sentence - it is hypocrisy at its best.
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LDWriter2
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I haven't joined this conversation even though I've thought about it. Openings is something I think we all fight with. Cliche openings can be east to do at times because it fits what we want. And sometimes it's a basic cliche with a couple tiny twists that make us miss the clicheness.

But Tiergan that one with someone waking... that is one of the rules we can break when we get older and grown up. It may be a bit cliche-ish but if done right it can still be good. Depending on who wrote it and what the book is about I would even read one that started with a dark and stormy night. Some writers I trust to do good even with a cliche start or I may think they will be putting their own twist to it so it's not so cliche-ish after all.

Of course if it was a new writer-especially if it was a indie writer who did published it on their own- and the I'm not that interested in the plot it could turn me off from reading it.


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Reziac
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I think the problem with a lot of these "newly awakened" openings is not the concept (Frankenstein goes to prove that), but rather that the narrative is launched in the wrong place -- nothing actually happens at that point, it just serves to do an awkward character introduction (often with infodump), which we notice because, well, nothing is really happening yet. The story itself begins somewhere else, often much later.

A dumb example comes to mind, but I'll use it anyway:

The story is about going fishing.

Done right, it starts when we actually catch a fish (or fail to, as the case may be).

Done wrong, it starts with buying a boat, a boat trailer, a trailer hitch, a map, fishing gear, and a fishing license, getting the oil changed in our truck, then takes half a day driving to the lake, gets our feet wet as we launch the boat, and finally, as the sun sets on the reader's attention, we get into the boat and start fishing. By then no one cares if we catch any fish or not.


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LDWriter2
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I see your point Reziac but at the same time some of that could be important to the story---if his boat has a hole it in but he decided he can bail out the water faster than it can raise. Or some tiny creature hitches a ride while he is getting gas, or he does everything else but fails to get gas so runs out on the way home and his fish spoil sitting in the hot sun while he has to walk to the nearest gas station.

But as you write that, and nothing happens, it can get boring rather quickly which isn't good.


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philocinemas
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"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." - The Old Man and the Sea

"Call me Ishmael." - Moby-Dick (Not technically a fish story, but definitely a fishing story)

There really isn't a wrong place to start a story, but it all depends on how the writer does it.


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walexander
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Speaking of 'Dark and stormy night...' I turn on masterpiece mystery on PBS last night (Sunday). It was Poirot: Halloween Party. What does the narrator start with in his introduction to the show?! Yep--You guessed it-- "It was a dark and stormy night..." How classic as we're having this discussion.

And then how does Poirot start the reveal toward the end of the show of who the murderer is -

Poirot: "It was a dark and stormy night...is that not how one should begin...no? And such indeed was the night of the Halloween party here in this very house. A little girl claims...I saw a murder once."

Classic. Talk about the fickle hands of fate.

W.


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Reziac
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Yes, that's why I said this was a story about fishing. It wasn't a story about the difficulties of getting to the lake. Those are different stories and start in different places. If you tack the latter onto the former, then you've got backstory where it doesn't belong. Conversely, a story about the difficulties of getting to the lake might end before you catch any fish.


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mbwood
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There are always exceptions to the general rules, which exceptional writers pull off. There is no one type of opening that guarantees an editor will buy your book. However, here are several types of openings that may captivate your reader:

a. The adsorbing action scene: A gunfight, an argument, a storm, a battle, etc.

b. Strong descriptive passage (remember color!) Make it so vivid and captivating the reader must continue; very tough to do.

c. Opening Dialogue Challenge - if used, the dialog must pull the reader in quickly.

d. Pending Action Sequence - The action is about to start, AND you let the reader know that is about to start, sometimes called a ‘suspenseful introduction.’ The reader knows what is going on, but the main character does not. Know how to let the reader learn of pending action – which has to be doom, death or disaster, etc. Let the reader know the danger to the characters:

The airplane’s wing is about to fall off... Don’t go down the basement... Door creaks open... Somebody with a gun is outside the window...

Got it? Suspense!

Remember the first rule of writing... Write!
MBW

[This message has been edited by mbwood (edited July 05, 2011).]


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LDWriter2
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And to add to mbwood's comments.

I have noticed that in an opening shorter sentences is usually better, especially the first one or two. Notice I said usually, every now and then I see a longer one. But from my study of openings I see more short ones.


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telflonmail
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It's hard to learn the unwritten rules of writing. It's even harder to unlearn them.

Now this, by Rachel Swirsky, is taking a large piece of cake and stuffing it your mouth with the buttercream frosting oozing all over your face...

quote:
My story should have ended on the day I died.


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EVOC
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I once opened a humorous story with:

"It was a bright and clear night..."

The piece was mostly a writing exercise on using the cliches writers frequently use and reworking them.


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LDWriter2
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I have an anthology titled "A Dark and Stormy Knight".


I love that title and wish I could borrow it. I have a couple stories that would fit that and could e-publish them together in a set.


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Crystal Stevens
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About "It was a dark a stormy night." being a classic that has withstood the ravages of time:

So has "Once upon a time,", and it might have been around longer than "Stormy night". Being a classic isn't always a good thing .


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MattLeo
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I love Tiergan's response that nights aren't necessarily all dark. That gets right to the issue: using words to *tell* the reader something he might want to know.

"It was a dark and stormy night" is not necessarily such a bad opening phrase, although Bulwer-Lytton then goes on to lard the rest of the opening sentence of *Paul Clifford* with eight more clauses so purple they're ultraviolet. If you don't believe me, check it out: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7735/7735-h/7735-h.htm

Aesthetically, if he'd left it at "It was a dark and stormy night", it wouldn't be such a bad way to start. Madeline L'Engle humorously uses it to good effect in *A Wrinkle in Time*:

"It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murray, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few minutes the Moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground."

Bulwer-Lytton's fault is ham-handed haste. L'Engle on the other hand uses a deft hand. Note the lovely rhythm of the second paragraph, the way she takes the reader's imagination in hand and feeds it morsels of imagery rather than ramming it down the reader's throats.

L'Engle put thought, imagination and originality into her opening. That's what makes it a standout. This confident pacing, neither hurried nor slack, continues through her opening chapter. She doesn't shy away from backstory or setting, nor does she linger on them. She builds reader interest in the story like a Boy Scout starting a fire with a bow drill, never overwhelming your attention but not wasting time with details that don't matter either.

Note, also, how contrary to popular wisdom her opening to *A Wrinkle in Time* is. She does not put Meg in peril in the first page. Most of the information in the opening is Meg recalling things; all she does in the first ten pages or so is go downstairs for a cup of cocoa. Yet is it so well done, we don't want to cut ahead to the chase.

Which is not to say a book that starts with the hero hanging from a cliff can't be great too, but in a way that takes even more skill. I sometimes find those action packed openings are like a runaway truck which barrels into an impenetrable wall of exposition on page 3.

Opening chapters are hard. There's more than one formula that can be used to open a story successfully, but the one indispensable ingredient is thoughtful, imaginative, vivid writing.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited July 08, 2011).]


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