One of the most common problems is that the opening promises us one type of story, but the ending delivers another. For example, I may get an opening that is very dramatic, with characters that I care about thrust into a gripping conflict—but on page five, the story ends with a pun. (Algis Budrys called that a jape, not a story). The exact opposite also occurs. I sometimes get a warm, lighthearted tale with lots of humor, only to find that the story has an astonishingly tragic ending.
In both of those cases, the beginning doesn’t reflect the ending at all. The author has made a promise to his or her reader, and not followed through. So how do you avoid that? It’s simple. Understand the kinds of promises that you can make.
When you are beginning to form your tale, you might do well to ask yourself, “What is the most interesting aspect of this story?” There are really only a few aspects that stand out:
1) The world/setting of the tale.
2) A character or characters.
3) The central conflict.
4) The treatment of your tale—tone, voice.
5) The theme of your story.
6) The emotion that it invokes.
Did you notice that when you’re brainstorming your tale, I asked that you consider each of these aspects while doing it?
Now, the flaws in a story can be easily seen when the wrong emotion is evoked in the opening—when you promise us romance, for example, and promise drama. But sometimes other miscues are given. For example, often I will see a story that begins by describing a character who promises to be interesting, but as the story builds, it turns out that the character really isn’t interesting. Maybe the world takes center stage, or the theme does. A brilliant metaphor in the first line might promise that the author’s style and treatment will be in the limelight, but then the tale—which is perfectly sound in many other respects—loses its flair.
Whenever the author gives a miscue, it becomes almost impossible to recover. I will often send such stories on as finalists to our judges—only to find that the story didn’t quite win. The judges may not even have recognized what the problem is on a conscious level, but they feel it in their guts.
So when you open a tale, consider what your strongest aspect is, and run with that. For example, let’s say that you have an intriguing character—a handicapped man who has managed to lead a fascinating life and change the world. If you read Forrest Gump, the name of the fascinating character is carried in the title.
Another writer might use a thematic idea as a hook. Greg Bear opens his classic Blood Music by discussing how every hour, trillions of microbes die, unnoticed and uncared about by the universe—thus foreshadowing the annihilation of mankind by sentient microbes.
Sometimes we can take our central conflict, from which our plot arises, and use it: “Tana Rosen met Karl William Ungricht three times in her life—twice before the end of the world and once long after.” In that line, I promise to show you the end of the world, but I also reveal the entire plot structure.
Very often, an opening may offer more than one hook. When I read the first line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer many years ago, I had to stop. It reads thus: “The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.” You see, the opening line told me many things. It told me that this was a story set in a future where mankind is so used to technology that it needed to make reference to it in order to explain something as natural as the color of the sky. Technology had replaced nature in making metaphors. It promised that I had an author who was so deeply in tune with that future, the tale would be a bit prophetic. It also promised me that I had a writer whose treatment, whose facility with words, would be extraordinary.
Sometimes as a story grows, we discover that one aspect of it has more depth than at first imagined. Perhaps a character comes to life unexpectedly, and suddenly our detective is as fascinating as Sherlock Holmes. Or perhaps your romance becomes a horrible tragedy. When that happens, you may need to go back and rewrite your opening, hinting at the most important aspect of the story, so that you make the appropriate opening promise.
So how do you start a story when considering the blank page? Look at the most important aspect to your story, and open with that. By promising the reader something extraordinary and delivering on that promise.
By the way, my story "Siren Song at Midnight" is available for free here.
reprinted with permission