I entered the Writer’s of the Future Contest (http://www.writersofthefuture.com/), which I highly recommend, even though they rejected me.
Ms. Joni Labaqui, the contest director, carried out the dubious honors of telling hopeful authors that they didn’t make the cut, but her standard form rejection mentioned that she had some tips on story openers. So I emailed her back, requesting a copy of said tips. When I opened her reply, I realized what I was holding. Actual tips from a Writers of the Future contest judge. So my next email was a request to share.
And even though Ms. Labaqui was only concerned that I credit the contest and the judge, Mr. David McFarland, I’d like to credit her, too. She didn’t have to go to so much effort on my behalf. She even encouraged me to enter the contest again. She was polite, helpful, and genuinely caring.
With no more ado, here is the content she shared with me:
David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—A Few Common Problems with a Story’s Opening, Part 1
Yesterday I talked about ten easy ways to get rejected, yet there are far more than ten ways to do it. I have a saying, “There are a ten thousand right ways to write any story, but there are a million wrong ways to do it.” I use this to point out that lots of things work, but new writers often don’t recognize that some things never work. So let’s get into a few of them.
False Tension. Some authors will try to hide information about their characters from the reader—such as the character’s name, age, sex, and so on. It’s a technique that you’ve seen a thousand times in films. You know, it’s a misty day and a mysterious figure is glimpsed walking along a cobblestone street in old London. The viewer is left to wonder if this is a killer on the prowl, or perhaps another victim for Jack the Ripper. We see the person’s feet, the back of a cloak, a dagger protruding from a voluminous sleeve. Eventually the camera pulls back to reveal, at just the right instant, our heroine—out hunting for Jack. The technique works in film, but so often it is done clumsily in novels. For example, I’ve seen stories where the author tries to hide the age, sex, and name of her viewpoint character. How wrong-headed is that? I mean, when you’ve got a viewpoint character, you’re seeing the story from that person’s eyes. They know who they are, what their sex is, and so on.
The author in this case is trying to create what we call a “reveal” in Hollywood—a moment where the audience gasps in surprise. But hiding a viewpoint character’s name or sex is just a dumb thing to try. You’ve got to pick better moments, pivotal moments, to put in reveals.
In the same way, I’ve seen authors try to hide their settings, the main conflicts, and so on—all vital information that the reader needs in order to become engaged in and enjoy the story.
I think that new authors sometimes feel that this technique is justifiable because stories are so often confusing when we start them, the author thinks that it is desirable to keep the reader confused. Part of that comes as our misperceptions as readers. When we’re young and inexperienced readers, stories are confusing anyway. Our vocabulary is often small or just different from the authors, so we don’t understand some of the words. Even if we’ve heard a word hundreds of times as an eight-year-old, we might not recognize it in print. After all, spelling conventions in English are rather confusing.
As young readers, we are also hampered by the fact that we might not understand storytelling conventions. You probably don’t remember this, but as a kid, when you first read dialog, you really had a difficult time trying to separate it from narrative. There are little things like that.
So if you’re a young reader trying to garner information, it can be difficult to get into the author’s world, to feel it come alive. Naturally, you might feel that author is being coy, withholding information.
Added to this problem is that sometimes you will read a story by an author who is either inexperienced or just bad. In short, you’ve read stories by many authors who don’t know very well how to bring a story to life. Even good authors become inattentive at times and fail to properly guide the reader through their fictive universes.
Let me put this clearly. The author’s job is not to withhold most information, but to convey it. Your job isn’t to deprive the reader of story elements, but to create a powerful illusion of reality, a shared dream that the reader can easily enter.
Now, there are some mysteries that the author can’t reveal, information that ought to be parsed out slowly. As a mystery author, your job might well be to make a game out of withholding the identity of a killer until the end of the novel, for example.
But you need to learn the difference between what should and shouldn’t be withheld.
Very often, I’ve seen authors who feel that it helps “raise the tension” in a story to withhold vital information that the reader absolutely has to have in order to become engaged in the tale.
In a way, it does raise the tension . . . by making the reader furious!
I call this mistake “creating false tension.” Don’t do it. It’s a cheap trick.
Instead, create a genuine conflict for your character and let the tension arise naturally.
Yesterday I mentioned that we should keep our stories clean enough so that they are publishable. I even stated that you should usually aim for something like a PG-rating in most stories. Several people pointed out that many good tales, my own Runelords included, had violence that might make it a little too hard for a PG-rating. While it’s true that the standards shift based upon the audience you’re trying for, the truth is that if you want to gain a wide audience, you really have to be careful of how you start your tale. I’ve read stories where the author tries to make the reader violently ill in the opening by showing explicit sexual mutilations. I recall one story in particular that seemed a bit too grotesque—the tale of a tapeworm trying to regain entry into an orifice from which it had earlier been expelled.
Now, while dark things can happen in your tale, the truth is that if you start out with something grotesque, it doesn’t leave you much room for escalation later on. In short, you may be starting down a very dark road indeed.
Perhaps your story requires that. If so, I’ll leave you to your own wisdom. There are tales that I could tell that I feel are probably too dark, too disturbing in order to gain a wide audience. As a storyteller, I must decide whether it is more important to me to tell the tale, or to retain a large audience.
David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—A Few More Ways to Get a Quick Rejection
The Static Opening. Some things are just cliché. The one opening that I will nearly always reject is where the character is sitting on a rock in the forest, or on a train, and wonders, “How did it ever come to this?” The author will then go on and talk about monsters chasing the character, assassins coming, etc.
The author here is typically responding to the feeling that the end of the story is so much better than the opening that he or she hopes to tease the reader into getting past the slow opening.
The truth is that such openings have been used so many times that they really won’t interest me. In fact, it’s a warning that the setup for the tale will be too slow.
If you feel that your opening is a bit too slow, there are lots of things that you can do to strengthen it: you can create hooks that make us want to read on. You can foreshadow upcoming conflicts. You can create little conflicts in the opening that act as bridges for the reader until the big conflict comes along. You can cut part of the opening so that we start closer to the inciting incident.
The Weather Report. Not all weather reports involve dark and stormy nights, but most seem to. The truth is that as an author you have to create a world, and part of that involves the climate. So many authors tend to dump this into a first sentence—or even a page or two.
Now, not all weather reports are equal. I’ve seen Dean Koontz write masterful reports that illustrate the wrongfulness of the universe, that establish deep literary illusions, and so on. So you can start a story with the weather sometimes.
Yet overall, I think you’re better off to open with a problem, or perhaps a few lines of dialog. Try it. I think you’ll find that it works better.
Staring into Mirrors. When you introduce a character, you’ve got a problem. A viewpoint character doesn’t get to see himself or herself. So, if you want the reader to see that character from the outside, you need to establish hair color, eye color, and so on all through the eyes of your protagonist. This is often done on the first page as the character is primping or staring in front of a mirror. I’ve seen bikers do it by primping in front of the chromed fender of a Harley. I’ve seen soldiers do it by shaving while looking into the reflection cast by their shield—and so on.
The problem of course is that such scenes are cliché, particularly in young adult novels. So you want to avoid being cliché.
At the same time, you don’t want to wait too long for the reader to see your character, since your reader will begin constructing his or her own mental image almost immediately.
There are a couple of things you can try. You could, for example, show the protagonist through the eyes of someone else in your opening. Or you could wait five pages before you do it. Or you could find something really interesting about your character to put into such a scene—the fact that he has artificial eyes, for example, or that he’s sewing up a wound on his face. In short, find a way to make this more than a cliché. Find something unique to show us about your character. Use language that makes us care.