In my last post I touched on the essentials of a good opening for genre fiction novels: character, conflict and setting. I prefer the more memorable, alliterative rendition: a person, in a place, with a problem. (A while back I offered a simple method for generating story ideas using this approach. It’s right here in case you missed it.)
In my classes, there’s often great consternation when I discuss this approach to story building. “It’s too formulaic, too pat, too restrictive, too… whatever.” Nonsense. It’s merely a plausable framework for creating interest in virtually any sort of fiction. A more cogent question is: how profound should the opening problem be?
If one takes the position that good stories feature characters who evolve as a result of the challenges they face, then the story-opening problem should not be the climactic issue. A good example is captured in this photo which recently went viral. If, for instance, we’re writing a story about a gutsy rescue worker, this might be an episode we’d want to use later, indeed much later, as something we could work toward. Opening the story with our hero dangling from a chopper while a great white shark attacks him doesn’t leave us much room for growth. After all, the best genre novels require a continuum of ever-increasing drama (often called “try/fails”) which ultimately lead to a single climactic event. The chopper and the chompers shown here seem like a perfect fit for the climax.
But wait! We could be missing some opportunities here. What if the story isn’t about the poor schlub on the rope ladder? What if it’s about the chopper pilot? Let’s call her Wanda, and maybe the dangling daredevil is Calvin, her fiancé. That could make for an interesting tale. Did they have an argument before starting their air rescue shift? Could Wanda be looking for a way out of her wedding? Maybe she’s just trying to get even with Calvin for something he did, innocently or not. On the other hand, she could be daydreaming about their upcoming nuptials, blissfully unaware of the gigantic eating machine about to turn poor Cal into an hors d’oeuvre.
Our intrepid adventure addict, on the other hand, will either survive or not; there isn’t a whole lot we can do with him after this, aside from handing him a change of underwear or posting his obituary.
Other tale-telling options would include making the story about the shark, or the people maintaining the chopper, or whoever photographed the carnage. In any of those situations, one could conceivably begin with the principal subject in the photo. For most writers I suspect the situation is so dramatic, however, it would be nearly impossible not to use it climactically.
Ah, but there’s the challenge. How could you start here and still amp up the drama? That’s what real writers do. Don’t accept the obvious. Don’t take the path readers expect. Don’t limit yourself to any of the first ten things that come to mind. Instead, open yourself up to other opportunities. They’re legion. You just have to look for them.
I’ll suggest some ideas for doing just that, next time.