Writing a Strong Opening

A friend kept urging me to read Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. I was skeptical. I love picture books (Danny and the Dinosaur, anyone? Little Bear?). But I don’t write for children.

My friend was so insistent that I finally gave in and ordered it from the library. She was right: This concise book offers priceless advice. (Yikes: concise, priceless, advice – I’m starting to think in rhymes. I guess the book really got to me!)

Today I’m going to share a suggestion from the book and one of my own. Then I’m going to give you an example to think about.

Ann Whitford Paul wants you to ask yourself a series of questions about the opening paragraph of your book: Who is the main character? What does your main character want? When and where is the story taking place? What’s the tone? What’s the WOW factor?

I’m going to add one more: What’s the first interesting word? If you’re having trouble answering the questions, that’s a sure sign that you need to revise.

For example, often there are two people in the opening of a story – two friends, or a husband and wife, or a boss and an employee. That’s fine if it’s it clear right away which one is going to be the central character. If not, it’s time to revise.

The same principle applies to other kinds of writing. If you’re working on a nonfiction piece, you might have three or four ideas in your opening. Is it clear which one will carry the book?  And you’d better get to an interesting word quickly! There’s a whole world out there competing for your reader’s attention.

I leave it to you to figure out how Paul’s other questions work, with this observation: if the answers aren’t clear right away, you need to revise. 

Let’s go on to an example. I’ve often taught Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel The Sun Also Rises. It’s a great book, but I also think there’s a serious flaw in the opening. Jake Barnes, the narrator, writes at length about Robert Cohn, his tennis friend in Spain. But as the book progresses, Robert Cohn fades away from the story.

There’s no rule that the first two characters have to be there on every page of your novel. But I always get the feeling that Hemingway had a different plan in mind for his novel. He finally changed the plan – but he didn’t go back to make sure the opening matched his new version.

Hemingway was such a great writer that the novel works anyway. But you and I can learn something important here. The beginning of any book generates the energy that will carry the story to the end. Make it powerful. Whatever goes into that opening should stay with the book all the way to the end. It’s good advice even if Hemingway decided not to follow it!

Front cover of Ernest Hemingway's Novel

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