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Opening Shots

July 20th, 2018

What is one of the commonest faults in stories written by writing students?

Before I answer this, peruse the opening of a novel by the prolific Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros:

“Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?”

Pause, and take a moment to recover, if you need to!

You will not be surprised to hear that Amanda self-published most of her  work and she is regarded as one of the worst stylists in literature – and this may well be the worst opening to a novel ever.

No student of mine has ever written anything nearly as bad, but often story openings are dull, convoluted, confusing or off-putting and don’t give a good  introduction as to what the story is about. And if a reader is put off by the opening, they may not read on.

The opening sentence is as important as any other part of the story. There is no magic formula for how to write a good one but I would suggest giving the opening a lot of thought

Here’s an example of an excellent opening from the novel “True Grit” by Charles Portis. It has been successfully filmed twice:

“People do not give it credence that a 14 year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just 14 when a coward by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”

In less than 100 words we know we are in for a revenge story, we’re told the age and sex of the main character/narrator and the fact that she was determined to see justice done. The location of the story is given, there is clearly going to be conflict, and we know the name of the villain. We know these things but we are intrigued to find out how the girl is going to achieve her aim so there is suspense. In addition, the style is simple and clear. Many readers will be inclined to read on.

As I stated, there’s no formula for a good opening because every story is different. But because it’s so important, don’t agonise when you start writing but go back when you’ve finished and check if how you opened is good enough – and then improve it.

Here are some opening sentences which really invite the reader to continue:

“It was a pleasure to burn.”    Fahrenheir 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1963)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”  The Crow Road, Iain M Banks (1992)

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”  Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, (1955)

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person.”  Back When We Were Grown-ups, Ann Tyler (2001)

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” City of Glass, Paul Auster (1985)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

Notice the first sentence of this article. If you have read this far it is probably because you were interested in the answer to the question!

Colin Bulman is a tutor at the Writers Bureau. His last books were “Fiction: the Art and the Craft”, Compass Books; “Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary”, Polity Press.






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