Today I’m super happy to have author & friend Lisa Gail Green in for a visit. Lisa is the author of The Binding Stone (The Djinn Series). She’s looking at problem story openings and offering ideas on how to make these work, so please read on!
We’ve all heard the tips on what NOT to do in an opening. But I can boil it down to one key word for what you DO want.
That’s right. Let’s take a closer look so I can explain.
What NOT to do:
• Start in the middle of a huge action sequence. Why not? Two questions:
Where do you go from there? And why should I care?
• Start with paragraphs of lovely description. ZZZZZZZZZ. I want to meet your character and know what their problem is!
• Start with waking up or a dream. I don’t know why – maybe because that seems like a natural place to start if we don’t know the real start – but everyone does it.
• Exposition. Back story is a tool you’re using as an author to get your head on straight. But you have to find a way to tell the story that’s happening in your book, not the one that happened to get there. Again, I want to know who your character is and what their problem is.
Now. Insert some balance and let’s see what happens.
ACTION: If you want to start with action, you’re probably a plot type person. Go ahead! You do need to SHOW your MC in an interesting situation (notice I didn’t say dangerous, just interesting) where their own personality shines through. Thus the balance. Pick something that showcases their unique voice. Show them doing something that’s different than what most others would do in the same situation.
DESCRIPTION: If you like description, chances are you are a world builder. That’s awesome! But make sure to show your world through your MC’s eyes and use it to highlight whatever is going on. Again, deliver description by filtering it through the character’s eyes, showing the world as they see it, not how others might.
WAKING & DREAMING: If you start with waking up, ask: must I? The truth is I HAVE. In my short story, BLACKOUT, for example I DO start with my MC waking up (naked in the backyard with ravens circling above and a creepy neighbor next door.) In other words, it’s okay to break rules, but only if you understand why they’re there in the first place and have a good reason. My reason? I wanted to show that her actions set her apart from what other people might do the same scenario.
EXPOSITION: Now that’s tough. You have know whether it’s absolutely necessary. It certainly doesn’t belong in the beginning though. The start should indicate who your character is and at least hint at what issue they will face. Right now. In THIS story. Whatever they are doing or thinking, it should be unique and relevant to the here and now.
Balance is the key to a great book and a great beginning. World, plot, and character should combine to immerse the reader right away and make them care. What’s one way to do that? Say it with me… Show the MC doing something or thinking something that’s different than what most people would do in the same situation!
And now I get to show off Lisa’s wonderful book cover and blurb:
Tricked into slavery by the man she loved, the Djinni Leela has an eternity to regret her choices.
Awakened in the prison of her adolescent body, she finds a new master in possession of the opal that binds her. But seventeen-year-old Jered is unlike any she’s seen. His kindness makes Leela yearn to trust again, to allow herself a glimmer of hope.
Could Jered be strong enough to free her from the curse of the Binding Stone?
Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? I love the gender swap on the traditional Genie story. If you like, you can add this book to your Goodreads List, of find out more on this series by visiting Lisa on Facebook, Twitter or her home stomping grounds, Paranormal Point Of View!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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Laura Pauling says
Awesome advice, Lisa!
I was curious as to what drew me into a story on the first page. And it’s almost the same every time.
And it came down to two things. Terrific writing that uses all the senses, strong word choice…etc. Whether it’s description or not, doesn’t matter. If the writing is the style I like, I’ll read on.
And the other opening I tend to like is a couple paragraphs of introspection from the character whether 1st or 3rd pov. I’m getting to know the char. right away. It’s the char. voice that draws me in.
And I think along with action being a turn off is
all dialogue. Seriously I don’t read further unless highly recommended or I love the premise. I think it’s so hard to jump into a lot of dialogue without knowing the person.
Julie Musil says
Such great advice from my great writer friend!
Beginnings are SO hard to get right. I always struggle with them.
Johanna Garth says
Like so many things in life…balance is key!
Lisa Gail Green says
You guys are so awesome! Thank you for the compliments. 😀 I’ve learned so much doing the first five pages workshop with Martina!!
Pk Hrezo says
Excellent advice, Lisa! I gotta have a reason to care about the MC if I’m gonna keep reading.
So exciting about your book!!
Becca Puglisi says
Such great advice, Lisa. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!
Natalie Aguirre says
Great tips, Lisa. Beginnings are so important and hard to get right.
And I just want to shout out that Lisa’s book is fantastic. I really recommend it.
Jeannie Miernik says
Thanks for this refreshing advice! We all know “what not to do.” It’s harder to figure out what we CAN do at the beginning of our novels. The first paragraph is always the most difficult part for me. I usually stick something bad in as a placeholder and go back at the very end, when it becomes clear to me how to introduce the story and MC in the perfect way.
Michael Wulf says
And where exposition is concerned, not only should you ask the questions: “Do we need to know this and if so do we need to know it right now?” (thanks Marilee Swirczek for teaching me those), but the books I enjoy always use back story as a hook.
They tease me through the pages with just the right amount to keep me wanting more and to clarify motivations. But they never give away the big chunks until the end.
Susan Oloier says
This is such great advice. I like the idea of starting a character in an interesting place. I just began a new book this week, and did just that with little action. Now I feel validated in my choice.
Great guest post!
Rachna Chhabria says
Thanks Lisa for this great advice. Love the premise of your book.
Lisa Gail Green says
I’m glad the advice has been helpful!! Thank you so much for having me, Angela!
Angela Ackerman says
I remember one I went to a first page panel. 30 1st pages were read and editors and agents put their hand up at the point where they would reject. One story was rejected after one word. ONE. Openings are critical to get right.
In that panel, it was amazing to see the similarities. Soooo much descriptive/weather openings. People waking from dreams. And starting the book during a fire was popular too for some reason. So all of this is dead on I think! We need to challenge ourselves to really come up with a balanced and compelling opening.
Thanks for visiting us, Lisa!
I like that you point out doing an everyday thing (like waking up) is okay as long as there is something unique or unusual about it (like waking in someone else’s backyard, naked…)
Wonderful tips. I think sometimes writers are afraid NOT to start with big action. We’re afraid they’ll say we have no hook or bad pacing. The word balance really comes into play here!
Theresa Milstein says
When I first wrote, I made all the beginnings mistakes. Good advice here.
Susanne Drazic says
Great tips. Thanks for sharing them.
Andrea Mack says
Thanks for explaining these differences so well. Great tips for writing beginnings that relate to the type of book you’re writing.
Ava Jae says
These are fantastic points. I particularly like what you said about showing your character reacting differently than most. Thanks for sharing, Lisa!
Sharon K. Mayhew says
Wonderful advice. Last fall I won an agent critique of my first ten pages. The agent liked my voice, but wanted a chapter before the action started…just for the reason you stated. Why should I care? So I went back and put my characters preparing for the war about a month before it happened. It gave a chance for my (potential) readers to get to know the main character before she was in danger.
Traci Kenworth says
Seeing your setting through your characters pov is something I need to go back and check. I like the idea. My protagonist wouldn’t describe things around him like anyone else. Thanks for the tip/s!!
Great advice! I bought the book too 🙂