All of it is true.
It can be hard, as a writer, to keep that in mind–you have the whole story to keep in your mind–so polishing (or demolishing and rewriting) your opening is something best done at the editing stage. Once your whole story is down on paper, go back to that beginning (after taking a break from the manuscript so you’re looking at it with fresh eyes) and ask yourself–if I were a reader, would I pick up this book based on this first page?
I’m not going to rehash the advice in the articles I linked to–go read them for yourself. Instead, here is the beginning of one of my favorite books of all time. I’ll post it, then we can discuss why it’s so great. I think I’ll make this a regular thing.
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
The house shook.
Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.
She wasn’t usually afraid of weather. —It’s not just the weather, she thought. —It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.
School. School was all wrong. She’d been dropped down to the lowest section in her grade. That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, “Really, Meg, I don’t understand how a child with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student. If you don’t manage to do a little better you’ll have to stay back next year.”
During lunch she’d roughhoused a little to try to make herself feel better, and one of the girls said scornfully, “After all, Meg, we aren’t grade-school kids anymore. Why do you always act like such a baby?”
And on the way home from school, as she walked up the road with her arms full of books, one of the boys had said something about her “dumb baby brother.” At this she’d thrown the books on the side of the road and tackled him with every ounce of strength she had, and arrived home with her blouse torn and a big bruise under one eye.
This of course comes from A Wrinkle In Time
Why does this work?
1. We meet the protagonist–and like her We’re introduced to Meg, and in just a few sentences we learn a lot of important things, most notably that she’s the kind of person who beats up people who make fun of her family. We’re on her side right away.
2. We see the conflict Meg’s struggling in school with grades and other kids and herself. For the genre (MG) this is incredibly relatable.
3. It’s tense On top of Meg’s problems, there’s the thunderstorm. Thunderstorms are the best.
4. It makes us want to keep reading You want to know what happens to Meg. You want to know why people are calling her baby brother dumb. You want to know what else is wrong. So you buy the book. You keep reading. Mission accomplished.
It can be painful to go back and dissect your “perfect” opening of your manuscript but you must make sure that it does all these things. Not in the first chapter–on the first page. Otherwise, you won’t get it past the querying stage, much less the publishing stage.
Kill your darlings. It’s the only way to get good enough.
p.s. One of my favorite blogger-writers offers a first 250 word critique every month to one of her blog followers. She has a really great editing eye, I highly recommend entering her sweeps when she offers it again.
Image found somewhere on this Tumblr