I've been thinking about this blog post for some time, maybe months, maybe even years. It might be the offspring of a workshop I gave at the St. Louis RWA conference in 1993. Then it was called "Pulling the Trigger, or how to start your novel off with a bang and keep it on target." I'm not sure I'd use the same imagery today, but you get the drift.
A strong opening won't save a badly written novel. In other words (pun intended), you can't just fix the first chapter and leave the rest alone. RWA discovered that some writers would polish their opening chapter nigh unto death so it would score well in contests, but the rest of the manuscript was garbage; a winning contest entry had to be strong throughout.
Likewise, a strong opening can't be tacked onto a badly written novel. The elements that make a novel poorly written are there regardless, and the opening won't fix them.
Understanding what makes a strong opening and why it helps the writer to make the rest of the novel better is crucial, but it's very complicated. It's not enough to say "Start with action" or "Open with dialogue" because neither of those tactics is enough. As a writer -- and perhaps as a reader -- you have to know why the elements are so essential.
When I was teaching creative writing at Estrella Mountain Community College back in the '90s, I had a hand-out that consisted of the opening paragraphs of several genre novels as illustrations of effective starts. Through all the classes I taught, the one that was most determinative of the potential for success was how the students analyzed those first few lines. Sometimes it wasn't more than a sentence or two, but because they couldn't grasp the concepts, I knew they weren't likely to go any further.
Here's the first paragraph of The Walls of Jericho, Paul I. Wellman's 1946 novel about small town life on the Kansas prairie in the early twentieth century.
He paused momentarily at the front door before stepping out into the night, and took his pipe from his mouth while he felt in his coat pocket to make sure his keys were with him.
What does that single sentence show the reader?
1. The character is male.
2. He's not in a hurry.
3. He's going from inside a building to the outside.
4. It's night.
5. He's an adult, old enough to smoke a pipe.
6. He's wearing a coat, indicating that it's cool enough to require one or at least not so hot as to be unbearable.
7. He has keys at least to the house, if not something else, and he has reason to be concerned that he has them.
This last item raises a hint of curiosity in the reader. Why is it so important that he make sure he has the keys? Is there a chance he might be locked out? What are those keys for? Just the house, or something else? Another building?
That single sentence also serves to focus the reader's attention as sharply as if they were looking at a photograph or the opening shot of a movie. We can mentally see this man standing outside the door in the dark, taking his pipe from his mouth, reaching into his pocket, touching the keys.
Once the reader's attention is thus focused, the writer absolutely must maintain that focus. So when we move to the next paragraph, the attention is intensified, not broken or blurred.
A delicate pale thread of smoke rose from the bowl of the brier in his hand, pleasantly prickling in his nostrils. As his fingers encountered them, the keys clinked dully on their ring. At the same time Belle's voice came, lagging, from the sitting-room.
We're still focused on the man outside the door, smoking his pipe, fingering his keys. When Belle speaks, we know he's hearing her. We don't see her, and she doesn't enter the mental picture. She's only a voice. We're hearing her with him, still in his point of view even though we know her name but not his. We don't know who she is -- his wife, his mother, his daughter, his sister, his lover. But we know he is hearing her. The focus is still on him and his experience.
The camera hasn't moved.
"You're going ... to the station?"
"Yes," he said. "Tucker would be disappointed if I didn't show up on the reception committee."
Is there a hint of tension between the man with the pipe and Belle? Is there a hint that she doesn't want him to go to the station? A hint that she doesn't want him to meet Tucker? Is there a hint of tension between Belle and Tucker?
But the focus remains on the man.
In those few sentences, the entire plot of the novel has been put into motion. Does the reader know that? No, not consciously. Having read the book several times, yes, I do know exactly what happens and how this tiny fragment foreshadows everything. That's what good writers have to do.
As you read further into The Walls of Jericho, every tiny detail falls into place from that beginning. Every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph builds on that foundation. It's easy to say the narrative reads like a film script, because Wellman did work as a scriptwriter; the novel was turned into a movie in 1948.
Another thing that these opening lines establish is that this is a character-driven novel. Does the reader care? Does the reader even know the difference between a character driven and a plot driven novel? The answer is probably "No" to both questions, but for the writer who wants to learn to write better so they can actually sell books, this can be crucial. It's not enough just to string a bunch of words together; they have to be the right words, in the right order.
Wellman puts the character front and center from the beginning. Description of setting is secondary and, at this point, totally unnecessary. This is going to be the story of the man with the pipe, on his way to meet Tucker at the station. Later, when the setting becomes important to the man's story, Wellman provides the description, but it will always be in the context of the characters.
I've done analyses of other books' openings before, and I can honestly say that if I'm turned off by the beginning, it's very very difficult for me to get through to the end, and almost impossible for me to enjoy the reading. I'm careful to stress "for me," because many readers really pay no attention.
Several years ago, a friend recommended a novel to me, a self-published spy thriller that she felt was every bit as excellent as anything written by Robert Ludlum. It happened to be free on Amazon at the time, so I downloaded it. Though spy thrillers aren't my preferred genre, I've read enough of them to find some enjoyable. This one, however, had a huge error of fact on the first or second page that made the entire premise of the novel not just implausible but impossible. I told my friend about it and said it completely ruined the novel for me, but she laughed and replied that details like that didn't affect her. "I just read; I don't care about whether it's believable or not."
And the truth is that most readers are like that, especially today in the age of Kindle freebies and Kindle Unlimited and Hoopla and Overdrive and digital library loans. And badly written, author-published novels.
Paul I. Wellman didn't have to worry about setting the historical time frame for The Walls of Jericho on the first page because his readers had the book in their hands. If it didn't still have the dust jacket --
they probably didn't have 6,000 digital editions stashed on a Kindle.
To be sure, within the next few pages, as the man descends from the front porch of his house and begins to walk toward the station, details fill in the scenery and setting. The reader quickly learns that Jericho is a small town on the Kansas prairie, that Tucker Wedge is returning to Jericho with a new wife no one in town has ever met, and that the man with the pipe is named David Constable.
If you're a reader with no aspirations to writing, The Walls of Jericho is a wonderful story. (I've tried to read the sequels, The Chain and Daughters of Jericho, and haven't been nearly as impressed.) But if you're trying to write popular fiction, The Walls of Jericho offers excellent study material.
(As an aside, I have to strongly disagree with Wellman's biographer that he failed in his depictions of women characters. But that's for you to judge for yourself, I guess.)
Anyway, this examination of how one author opens a highly successful novel -- The Walls of Jericho was a best-seller in its day and the movie rights sold for $100,000 -- can offer the aspiring writer a kind of artistic template.
It can also offer a template for critique.
How well does the opening of your novel fit that template? Is it focused on a character or on action? Does it present a potential for tension or conflict that will carry through the rest of the novel? Does each sentence lead seamlessly into the next, like a movie camera panning a scene and then pulling in for a close-up, or does the focus shift from close-up to distance, scenery to character?
As you get more into the novel, a page or two, is the action level sustained, or does the scene fade to black for the introduction of backstory? Is that backstory needed? Is there another way to provide necessary backstory information?
Josh Olson is right, of course. Within a page or so, you know you've been pulled into a story by someone who knows how to write. The page falls away and your imagination takes over so that you're into the story, into the action, into the mind of the character. You know what's going on. You hear the voices, the music, the clash of battle. You feel the heat, the cold, the rage, the passion, the pain, the ecstasy. Everything carries you forward into the conflict -- even flashbacks -- and builds toward an emotional crescendo.
Sometimes that building is slow and gradual, so that you as a reader hardly notice it. But it's there and the evidence is your desire to keep reading, to keep turning pages, to find out what happens next. The writer has to work consciously and deliberately to construct the escalation, whether subtle or obvious.
Small, even unrelated, details can ruin the imaginary reality, like the penny in a pocket in Bid Time Return. Style and grammar and usage and spelling, even formatting for a digital edition can destroy the world the author is trying to construct. Facts have to be reasonably accurate, or at least made believable within the context of the novel. If you want to have flying vehicles in the 1850s, make them plausible; if you don't, readers will be more than a little upset.
All these elements must come together smoothly, and it can take a great deal of effort to make them do so.
What happens when this template is applied as an analytical tool to a book like Yvonthia Leland's The Wrythe and the Reckoning? Unfortunately, the project's multiple flaws become more obvious, and the writer's weaknesses are amplified.
The wagon traveled steadily along the country path. The bright sun was shining over the expansive terrain. The green grasses and wildflowers were swaying in the warm breeze. The leaves on the trees were swirling overhead above us. It was the mid-afternoon in early spring, and we were on a journey traveling to our new home, to the city of Boston in Massachusetts.
Leland, Yvonthia. The Wrythe and the Reckoning (The Wrythe and the Reckoning Saga Book 1) . Reverie Ardent. Kindle Edition.
The opening sentence turns the camera on the wagon. It's moving, so we know it's not just sitting there, but the reader doesn't know what kind of wagon it is or anything else about this wagon. It's on a country path, a word that normally suggests a narrow way for pedestrians, not vehicles. So the first sentence has already put some confusion into the reader's mind rather than pulling them into a scene.
The next sentence, however, abruptly shifts the camera's focus. Now it's a wide shot of the sun and the surrounding landscape. Wait, what about the wagon? Who's in it? What kind of a wagon is it?
Instead of going back to what the first sentence set in motion (pun of course intended), the third sentence zooms in for a close-up of grass and wildflowers! Then it shifts yet again to the leaves in the trees! Oh, there's a reference to "us" but the reader really can't be sure that "we" are in the wagon. It's an easy assumption, but . . . .
It's also possible that "we" are sitting under a tree watching the wagon approach from a distance. Or watching it roll off out of sight. The reader has no context to be confident that "we" are in the wagon that is traveling down the country path.
Even before I taught creative writing at Estrella Mountain Community College, I was a member of several different critique groups. Some of the other members were competent writers, and some went on to sell the novels they brought for critiques. Others, however, lacked the skills to make their work publishable. Invariably, the problems showed up on the first page.
Author Leland had no focus for her first paragraph, and she couldn't recover from the fragmented trajectory. As the reader went further into the narrative, that fragmentation intensified. The ability to write a single coherent sentence isn't enough. Most of Leland's sentences were individually competent. Not sparkling or eloquent, but competent. The problem was that they didn't cohere. The narrative became disjointed beyond repair.
Having read more of the book, I suspect Leland's problems are far more extensive than just not being able to craft a fine opening paragraph. But her failure in that paragraph is indicative of other weaknesses, and they are not likely to be overcome.