“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s a classic opening. But why? In this article, we’ll dive into the makings of strong openings.

There are many recommendations out there about what your opening needs to accomplish. Most will agree that at the start of the novel you need to hook your reader, reel them in with something compelling—usually a character who we care about.

You also need to make decisions about where to start your story. Often the writer starts in media res, which means “in the midst of things.” This is often seen in the mystery genre which opens with a murder having just occurred. This can capture the reader’s attention but it does present the challenge of making the reader care about someone they’ve never met.

One of my favorite books on writing is Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass has some explicit ideas about what constitutes an effective opening. Since we will all be penning those very soon, I thought I’d share his prescription for strong, emotional openings.

According to Maass, there are five functions that the opening must fulfill:

  • Invokes life or death
  • Raises story questions
  • The narrator or protagonist shows strength
  • A palpable mood is established
  • The narrator speaks with urgency

Invokes Life or Death

What is that you want us to be aware of in your story? This one is fairly self-explanatory, so I will just illustrate with several examples:

  • All children, except one, grow up.” Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
  • “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
  • “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledge, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Interesting to note… it is much easier to find examples of death than life. What does that say?

Raises Story Questions

Part of the art of unfolding a story is to compel the reader to keep going. This is fueled by the critical question “What happens next?” A great way to draw the reader in is to pose questions whose answers will be reeled out along the way. The effective parceling out of these questions and answers is critical to the craft of fiction. Hints and innuendos must start right away. What is it that you want to tease your reader with?

The Narrator or Protagonist Shows Strength

The quality of the narrator/protagonist is another key to drawing the reader in right away. As writers, we are asking the reader to invest in a relationship, so we must prove up front that this is a relationship the reader wants to forge. Done effectively, the voice of the narrator lulls the reader into the dream state. It invokes primal storytelling, harking back to the voice of one’s parents reading a bedtime story. “Get ready for adventure!”

A Palpable Mood is Established

What is the prevailing spirit of your story? What do you want to evoke in terms of style and language? Maass challenges the notion that one shouldn’t start a novel with references to the weather, landscape, and setting. It depends on what those references are in service to. If they help to establish a palpable mood then they are serving a justifiable purpose.

The Narrator Speaks with Urgency

The writer must communicate to the reader, “There is something you must understand…” What is urgent in your story? What is that thing that they must grasp right away in order to truly appreciate your story?

As you plan your opening, I challenge you to keep Maass’ prescription for strong, emotional openings in mind. Try writing out answers to the questions posed above to get your mind engaged in the task of writing a compelling opening. And let me know your thoughts. Which of these points is most challenging to you? Which is most helpful?

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