Story Openings, Part 1, Don’t Clear Your Throat

Every novel has its own basic structure. It comes in three major parts: the opening, the middle, and the end.

Though all of these parts are important, but the most important part is the opening. If our first sentence or paragraph doesn’t hook readers and draw them into our story, they’ll likely put down our book and look elsewhere for entertainment.

One common mistake is called “throat clearing.” In novel writing, it means loading the opening pages with lots of information—backstory, flashbacks, description, and/or too many characters, for example. It’s “coughing up” words before we actually write the story.

When writing openings, think about our favorite movie. What was its opening scene? How did it hook us? I mention movies because that’s one of the main mediums we authors are competing against. Of course, we must also consider our favorite books. Study their opening lines. How did they motivate us to keep reading?

The best opening is the action opening. It begins in medias res (in the middle of things). These openings can start with something spectacular, such as an earthquake, or something seemingly innocent such as a knock on a character’s door. It can also include dialogue. We must either see a character in action or hint that something is about to happen. Also, be sure to mention your character(s) names as soon as possible.

In my Civil War dog story due out this fall, Squire, Tales of a Mascot, I didn’t “clear my throat” by writing lots of narrative background information and description while building up to the main story. Instead, I jumped right into the action. Here are the novel’s first two paragraphs:

“Well, I’d sure as sand say he is going with us.” Jesse Webb sauntered down the wooden steps of his father-in-law’s brick furniture store.

His wife folded her arms, her emerald green hoopskirt spanning its slatted walkway. “Oh no, he’s not.” Her hazel eyes narrowed. “Besides, how could you take the most popular dog in Coughlin? He might get killed.”

Like a man just ambling through the day’s hours, Jesse faced her. Amused, his lips curled up in no great hurry. Then he spoke. “Seems I’d say you’re more worried about Squire than me, dear Rachel.”

In my three opening paragraphs, I did four things:

1.       I introduced the main characters: Jesse, Rachel, and their dog Squire.

2.       I identified the setting, the town of Coughlin.

3.       I created conflict between Jesse and Rachel.

4.       I hinted at future danger for both Jesse and Squire.

Later, we’ll learn what that danger is—Jesse and Squire are going to war.

Instead of clearing our throats when we begin our story, let’s jump right into it!

Next week: Part 2, More Opening Techniques.

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