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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » trite methods of opening stories

   
Author Topic: trite methods of opening stories
arriki
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I was doing some critiquing at another site and it came to me that there are a lot of methods of opening stories used there and here that – without a touch of genius – don’t work any more.

The first was discussed over in the F&F here – opening with a character waking up.

How about opening with explaining…explaining how something works, or the social history behind whatever or how the pov got to this point. That sort of thing.

I’m not saying these can’t be done. Just that they are so hackneyed you have to find something new and unique to make them work.

Opening with an active scene, someone doing something, is much easier to sell the reader on.

What some other opening gambits that work or do not work easily?


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LCastle
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"It all began when.."
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Marzo
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Opening with a sex scene?
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annepin
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Don't work/ difficult to pull off for me:

Opening with a dream sequence--cliche.

Opening with dialogue--it's got to be damn good dialogue.

Opening with an injured character just after a crash or other catastrophic event--cliche.

Overly active openings--sword fight, etc.--feels pushy, like the story is jumping up and down saying, read me! read me!

Things that do work:

I'm a sucker for emotional intensity. Any promise of emotional richness to be developed in the story and I'm turning the page.

Humor (I could put this in the above list, too. It's got to actually be funny).

A self-deprecating character.

Characters who want something right off the bat.

Political intrigue.

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited February 09, 2008).]


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KStar
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I can't stand descriptions of scenery. Many books open with a description of the trees or something, about one or two paragraphs long. I skip it.
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InarticulateBabbler
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I'll add:

Weather Reports
State of the Union Addresses / History Reports
Staring out of a Window / Thoughful poses
"And that's when it happened..."


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AllenMackley
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For me, what determines if I'll turn the page or not is whether the writer applies the good ol' show-don't-tell rule, more than anything else. Bland, generalized descriptions turn me off from the get-go. I much prefer vivid details with character's that are doing something. Describing a character is boring without any movement or action taking place.

[This message has been edited by AllenMackley (edited February 09, 2008).]


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wrenbird
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In my years here at Hatrack, I've read a lot of openings. One that always keeps coming back is the main character running. Running through the forest, running away from the bad guys, trying to run to something in time.

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Wolfe_boy
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Hear hear, wrenbird.

I don't know that I have quite enough hair follicles on my whole body to count the number of stories I've read on here that began with someone running from the police, the bad guys, the aliens, the explosion, the soldiers, the killer bunny, Bono, wah wah wah.

Not to say that it's a terrible way to start a story - obviously, we're thrown into a high action scene that is attempting to draw us in, but invariably we're going to run into an explanation as to why the person is running, either through a harried internal monologue while they run, or through a flashback scene. Either start the story a little earlier so we know why he is running (at least vaguely, not all of the specifics) or later after he's successfully escaped, if the escape itself isn't key to the plot of the story. If your MC broke out of jail to get retribution on his double-crossing partner, it isn't necessary to show him leaping over the wall, since that isn't the key to the story - the retribution is.

An opening I'm not particularly fond of? The diary entry.

Jayson Merryfield


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KayTi
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Email openings

It was a dark and stormy night

He had no idea where he was when he woke up

Excessive jargon in first sentence (sci-fi)

Excessive use of new names/terms in first sentence (fantasy - "In the collonades of Etripia, the Althora of Geronimo, the princessa of Palladio, was standing at the Waypeak, addressing her loyal subjects.")

One of my favorite hooks? Credit to Doctor Seuss: "At the far end of town, where the grickle-grass grows, and the wind smells slow and sour when it blows, and no birds ever sing, excepting old crows, was the street of the lifted lorax." In spite of being a children's book, he manages to use the new names and terms in a familiar enough way to suck me right in.


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Robert Nowall
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Well, when you eliminate the possible choices for how to open a story, what else is left? And will it work?
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Marzo
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What do you guys think of these 'cliche' openers if they're spiced up? Assuming they're written well, would you tolerate the below, or is it just the same old cliche? (And in that case, like Robert asked, what's left?)


*A character waking up - from suspended animation, coma, or other unnatural sleep state
*Dream sequence - either prophetic, or technologically induced
*Description - of a planet being approached for the first time
*Thoughtful poses - in interesting/bizaare settings which simply demand thought
*Weather reports/"it was a dark and stormy night" - in a floating settlement in Jupiter's upper atmosphere


Just some examples, perhaps not the best, simply meant to touch on the question of how/when/if a cliche can be 'freshened up' to work.


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arriki
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Any cliche, no matter much it has been overused can work.
It's just you have to find a new, fresh angle on it.

I think that the first few sentences have to be so good they are closer to poetry in the sense that each word helps bring in more information than normal. Vivid images. New ideas and places. Real revelations of character.

It's -- to me -- that some cliches are more hackneyed than others starting with the pov waking as the most misused of all.


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annepin
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quote:
Well, when you eliminate the possible choices for how to open a story, what else is left? And will it work?

??? What do you mean? There are thousands of story openings still possible, as many as one can imagine.


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rickfisher
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Another opening to avoid is any public event: a parade, a speech, even the sentencing at a trial. As OSC once said, these things are never interesting without background. (The court scenes in Perry Mason always come at the end of the book.)

The beginnings that remain interesting are the ones that can't be easily categorized. If anyone says, "You can begin with a . . . " they're almost certainly wrong, unless they are referring to a particular story. About the closest way one can categorize acceptable openings is: start just before the event that kicks the story off. For example, is waking up ever the event that kicks a story off? Well . . . maybe . . . if the character hadn't expected to wake up, if that event takes him by surprise.

Hmm. . . .


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smncameron
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Opening with the one line shocker like "I remember the night I became a goddess" bothers me for some reason, I feel that author's need to earn the rights to a good telegraphic sentence.

I've been thinking of transcribing the first sentence of all 30+ stories in last years "Best Science Fiction" anthology for the purpose of opening them up to analysis. It won't do it if there's no demand from the community though, the job would probably take OVER ONE HOUR (oh the humanity).


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Marzo
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quote:
I've been thinking of transcribing the first sentence of all 30+ stories in last years "Best Science Fiction" anthology for the purpose of opening them up to analysis. It won't do it if there's no demand from the community though, the job would probably take OVER ONE HOUR (oh the humanity).

I'd be interested in seeing this. It'd be a great reference, especially if people built on it with previous years' openers. Maybe we'll notice something together.


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rstegman
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It was a dark and stormy night as I woke up from suspended animation. I sat with my hand on my chin, my elbow on a giant egg. staring out the window. There was a loud cracking sound. the zigzag gap formed in the egg shell.
Bill sat bolt upright, sweating, gasping for air. Another of those dammed dreams. The president droned on during his state of the union address where his message was that the nation would go to hell in a handbasket unless he was reelected.

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Cheyne
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rstegman- this is an open discussion forum. Your story opening should be in the F and F forum

But your prose is fresh and well written i'll read it if it's ready

[This message has been edited by Cheyne (edited February 14, 2008).]


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annepin
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Lol, rstegman. Though he'd better get up and start running soon for this opening to work for me.

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited February 14, 2008).]


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urodela1
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Keep in mind, sometimes they can work.

"A Wrinkle in Time" opened with ...It was a dark and stormy night, and that was a pretty good YA novel filled with decent prose. The crux being, that stormy night was integral to the plot. So use that solitary cliche if the cliche has use, but give it a twist first, before our eyes start to glaze.

Sincerely,
Urodela1


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JeanneT
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There is no way to start a story that hasn't been done multiple times and probably done badly at some point.
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Ben Trovato
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Probably no help to anybody, but, my all-time favorite hook is from Roger Zelazny's This Moment of the Storm:

"Back on Earth, my old philosophy prof--possibly because he'd misplaced his lecture notes--came into the classroom one day and scrutinized his sixteen victims for the space of half a minute. Satisfied then, that a sufficiently profound tone had been established, he asked: 'What is a man?' "

You get the narrator's voice right away: this is a guy of humor, philosophy, and irreverence.


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Merlion-Emrys
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Hmmm....I'll be honest with you, I'm not really in the camp of "cliche=bad" or "everything has to be totally original."

Obviously, openings are very important. But, most of them have been done before, usually repeatedly, and personally I some times find obvious attempts at "avoiding cliches" as or more annoying than the "cliches" themselves.

I agree with the person that said big-bomb openings "I remember the night I became a goddess" and/or extremely action oriented ones can be a bit much, mostly because its obvious the writer is trying to grab you all at once. Its a very fine line.

In the end, personally, both in openings and most other parts of a story, I try to figure out what works for the story, and worry about the rest later.


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Robert Nowall
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After a couple months, I forget what I first thought and may have posted when this thread was newer...but one cliche comes to my mind.

Your main character wakes up in the morning and starts the day.

I noticed, back in my Internet Fan Fiction period, that, for three stories in a row, I'd used it. One was out there and done...I revised the second to eliminate it...then abandoned the third altogether. I don't think I've used it since as a beginning, though I've had a couple of "wake up and greet the day" scenes along the way.


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