Thursday, 8 April 2010

Cries and Whispers - how to write a compelling opening

We all want to write a compelling opening to our stories – something that hooks the reader, makes them not want to put the book down, makes them walk over to the cash-till and hand over their money. The how-to wizards know what to do – start with a bang, use action, start in media-res, have conflict - but how often have you read a story opening where the author has clearly tried to write a 'grabber' scene and ticked all the wizards' boxes, but it still doesn't work?

A dialogue between unknown characters?

An action sequence where there's clearly a lot at stake, we just don't know what it is?

A thriller opening with an unknown antagonist performing a hideous act of violence on an unnamed and soon to be deceased victim?

The truth is, you can make the opening as spectacular as you like, but if there's nothing to make the reader care, they won't. It's not easy involving a reader with characters/events right from the start, but nobody ever said it was. Here are some ideas for writing engrossing beginnings.

Don't start too late

Generally, starting in the middle of things is a good device, but starting too late can ruin a good opening. I've seen authors immediately having to follow a startling opening with a flash-back to explain the significance, or sapping all drama out of a potentially great opening because they are rushing to the action. If the reader knows something is going to happen, he'll read on, and while he's doing that, you can get him caring about the characters. The promise of action is enough to propel the narrative.

Prefer drama to action

Drama is conflict, emotion, tension - while action is just stuff happening. Drama implies that stuff will happen and is utterly compelling – a good way of engrossing a reader without punching them in the face with a gratuitous action-fest.

Whisper rather than shout

You're more likely to listen to someone who beckons you over to whisper in your ear than some boor bellowing at you from across the room – a lesson from life that can be applied to story openings – an intimate, intriguing voice can be more effective that a shocking 'grabber'.

Bring it closer to home

Or rather, make the reader care about your characters – if you apply some of the techniques above you can keep the reader around long enough to get to know your characters, so when you do put them in danger, place them in conflict, or have them talking to other characters – it will have some meaning and significance.


  1. These are good tips. I've seen a lot of writers open with a mega-flash but then I find it hard to relate because I don't know these characters yet.

    Beginnings are SO tricky. But I love it when a writer starts with revealing a character who is in a situation that is unique for them -- where something different has happened and see the character react.

  2. Great advice! This is tricky, but when it's done well it locks the reader in the seat and keeps them reading. I think a good example is Stuart Neville's
    "Ghosts of Belfast." It employs the tips you've outlined here.

  3. I like the tip about drama versus action. I think its all too often we mistake the two. You want to give the reader enough to keep going, but not so much that they feel overwhelmed.

  4. Well said. Great post. Thanks! I'll keep this in my pocket as I begin revising one of my mms.

  5. Another fantastic post! A little easier said than done when we are writing, or even revising, because we--of course--know our characters so well. Love the way you've broken this down. The one thing I might add would be that it's usually good to start with the drama that leads to change.

    Thanks for all your great posts! Martina