If you had to choose which part of Aristotle’s three-part story structure is the most important, which part would it be? Well, if you said Act One, you’d be correct. Of course, the middle and end are important too, but if our novel’s opening sentence or paragraph doesn’t grab readers, they’ll likely put down our book and look elsewhere for entertainment.
One common mistake beginning writers make is throat-clearing. In literary terms, this means “coughing up” words before getting into the story. Writers who do this load lots of information, details, and wordiness in the opening page before anything actually happens. Doing this in the first draft is fine, but during the revision process writers should work to get rid of it.
When writing an opening, think about a favorite movie. What was its opening scene? How did it hook us? I mention movies because it’s one of the main forms of entertainment we writers compete with. Consider books too. Study their opening lines and paragraphs. Do they hook us? Sometimes when I visit a bookstore, if I’m not familiar with a certain book’s author, I’ll read its first page. If the first paragraph or so doesn’t grab me, I don’t buy it.
Although there are many ways to begin a story, the best way is the action opening. This opening begins in medias res. That is, in the middle of the action. It can begin with something spectacular, such as an earthquake, or something seemingly innocent like a knock on the door. It can also include dialogue, though this isn’t a requirement. We must either see a character in action or hint at something that’s about to happen. Also, be sure to mention your character’s name as soon as possible.
In my novel, Squire, A Mascot’s Tale, a dog story set during the Civil War, I didn’t clear my throat by writing long stretches of preamble before the story begins. I began in medias res instead. Let’s look at the book’s two opening paragraphs.
Excerpt from Squire, A Mascot’s Tale
“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. Besides, how could you take the most popular dog in Coughlin? He might get killed.”
Analysis of Squire, A Mascot’s Tale
- Main characters introduced: Jesse, Jesse’s wife, and the dog. By the sixth paragraph, we learn the dog’s name (Squire) as well as the name of Jesse’s wife (Rachel).
- Setting introduced: the town of Coughlin.
- Conflict introduced: Jesse and Rachel arguing over Squire.
- Danger introduced: I hinted at danger for Jesse and Squire when Rachel says, “What if he gets killed?” Later, we’ll learn what the danger is—Jesse is taking Squire to war as his regiment’s mascot. Because mascots were common among soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, this storyline is believable.
We’ll look further at openings in the next post.
For anyone interested in purchasing Squire, A Mascot’s Tale, it’s available for purchase on The Author’s Cove Bookstore.