Compelling openings一now with examples!

Image of writer's setting w coffee cup, pen, and blank paper
Also there are like, holly berries? Inexplicably

So I’m currently reading River Quest. It’s a chapter book from the Dinotopia universe and WOW does it jump on the plot horse. Only a few pages in, protagonist Magnolia’s mentor has been mortally wounded in a geyser scalding accident and she’s been saddled with the responsibility of the whole country’s freshwater. By the end of the first chapter, she’s questing to unravel why the Polongo River, the lifeblood of Dinotopia, has dried up. I don’t know if I had forgotten how chapter books worked, but I read this and all I could say was wow. This plot horse is at a gallop.

There are three major things that assist in building a compelling beginning to a story:

  1. A plot一things are happening to propel the story forward
  2. Characterization一the beginning of a book is the most important place to establish your protagonist, your setting, and the status quo of how things are before the plot horse gets running
  3. A mystery一this last element can be as tangible as a body found, or as intangible as a question of motivation, i.e. why are the characters doing what they’re doing? Anything that makes the reader want to read ahead and find out why creates a sense of momentum forward

If a “good” story beginning has all of these things, you would think every story would try to use all three to the highest degree, but story beginnings more often veer one way toward plot or characterization primarily, with the other elements at lesser priority.

For example, in River Quest, the writing focuses more on plot than on characterization. There is definitely some characterization一Magnolia cares deeply for her mentor and has a sense of duty toward protecting the freshwater of Dinotopia一but that characterization is broad strokes to paint “the kind of person who would go on a quest.” The reader doesn’t get an enormous sense of the tiny details一just enough to jump the story on the plot horse.

The first few pages of a story are like Manhattan一there is only finite, linear space to build on. You cannot fit the depth of a novel in five pages. You have to make choices about what content is going there, and what information your reader will receive through your choices.

Oh no here comes a graph! (I hope you don’t get ptsd from junior year pre-calc.) 

A graph with x and y axes labeled as “intensity of plot” and “intensity of character” respectively. It is not quantitative. It is a feelings graph.

See how along the X and Y axes the arrows point more toward characterization or plot? Fantasy and sci-fi (and all genre fiction, really一mysteries, romance, horror) tend to jump on the plot horse. It’s not that characterization comes second, necessarily, it’s that quicker pacing is expected more in these sub-genres than it is in, say, lit fic.

Sometimes authors get REALLY LUCKY (or talented) and manage to cram in both characterization and plot with the same intensity. I believe Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins manages to do this. By page five or so, the reader knows that Gregor is selfless一he has been parentified, takes care of his younger sister, and lets go of dreams his family can’t afford, like attending summer camp. The reason he’s parentified? His father went missing. So there’s your mystery. And by page five he and his younger sister have fallen down a shaft into the Underland. PLOT! It’s happening!

Another (almost outlandishly efficient) story beginning is that of The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk. There’s a reason it was Nebula-nominated, kids. It’s ‘cause it’s fucking fantastic.

The opening paragraph:

“The carriage drew closer to Booksellers’ Row, and Beatrice Clayborn drew in a hopeful breath before she cast her spell. Head high, spine straight, she hid her hands in her pockets and curled her fingers into mystic signs as the fiacre jostled over green cobblestones. She had been in Bendleton three days, and while its elegant buildings and clean streets were the prettiest trap anyone could step into, Beatrice would have given anything to be somewhere else一anywhere but here, at the beginning of bargaining season.”

How many things do we, the reader, learn from this paragraph? (It’s a lot). I was on the editorial board of my high school’s newspaper, and we were always told to try to fit the who, what, when, where, and why of a journalistic story into the lede. When someone manages to do it smoothly in a narrative story (rather than journalism) I feel a sense of incredulousness because I know how hard it is to get right一it’s like a magic trick. The way our language works一subject, verb, object, adverbial clause, etc一allows for a lot of information to be conveyed if you work it right, but it’s the working that is the craft.

So if the first few pages of The Midnight Bargain were in a newspaper, what would we learn from the lede paragraph?

  • WHO一Beatrice Clayborn, protagonist
  • WHAT一Practicing magic in a carriage!
  • WHEN一Bargaining season
  • WHERE一Booksellers’ Row, Bendleton
  • WHY一 ?

The why is left mysterious. The reader knows that Beatrice doesn’t want to be there, to the point that she “would have given anything to be anywhere else,” so why is she there? That question is the big mystery, with a more superficial mystery (answered near immediately afterward) in the question of “what sort of magic is she doing?”

If writing a fast-paced book that jumps right on the plot horse is what you’re going for, this is a prime example of how to do it. It’s tricky to convey character, setting, motive, and conflict within the first few pages, but those who do it well seem to find success with their books.

What do you think is most important in the beginning of a story? Are you a plot person or a character person? No matter what camp you’re in, I wish you the best of luck on your writing journey. Happy writing!

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