Openings – the one thing you need before you start

This week I’ve been reading the submissions for our bursary competition on the Crime Thriller MA I run at City University. We asked for the first 1,000 words only, because in theory a great crime novel should have grabbed the reader by then. Easy, right? Or is it? It got me thinking about what really matters in an opening. What’s the most important skill you have to demonstrate? What matters most in that moment when a busy agent clicks open your Word doc, or when a reader flicks through a book in a shop?  I believe it’s one thing and one thing only. Do you want to know what that is?

Are you sure?

If this was a TV show, it’s at this point you’d hear the credits or we’d cut to the ad break. Because I’m talking about suspense – the art of keeping things hanging, or making people ask ‘where is this going?’ or ‘what happens next?’ or ‘what on earth is going on?’ I think that if you get this right in your book opening, you can get everything else wrong and it won’t matter. Yes, I mean everything. Shaky characterisation, cheesy writing, blurred sense of place and time, even bad formatting and poor spelling and grammar (but don’t tell anyone I said that, OK? I have to defend my reputation as the Scourge of Rogue Commas).

Of course, I’m not saying that these things aren’t important. A reader won’t get very far into your book if those aren’t in place too. I’m just saying that unless someone wants to read on, there’s no point in anything else. It’s Game Over. So your number one job when starting your novel is to hook the reader and pull them in.

How do you do this? It’s a long topic, and one I tend to bang on about a lot. There are many ways to create suspense, and lots of tools you need in your metaphorical writing box. I will cover these over the next few weeks, but I think above all else, when starting out you need to get your story right. It’s amazing how many new writers don’t even have a story. They have a character portrait, or a series of linked anecdotes, or some torturously beautiful descriptions of the mountains or the young boy’s feelings as the bullies flush his head down the loo. All of which may be very important and lovely, but it’s not a story.

Here’s a way to check if you have a story. Answer this question: what is your book (or script or play or whatever) about?

Look at your answer now.

Have you written a theme? (eg whaling). A character? (eg a teenage girl). A location or time? (seventeenth-century India) None of these things are story. Simply put, a story involves something happening. And for something to happen, we need things to change. To move. So your answer should involve an active verb of some kind. It should follow this kind of (very very) rough guide: ‘It’s about (character) who needs/wants (a big goal or a big problem), and so X happens (consequences, conflict, choices)’. In other words, choices are made. Problems arise and are reacted to. Things shift. Things probably go horribly wrong and maybe horribly right again. But if nothing is happening, there is no story.

Next time I’ll go into story elements in more details, but in the meantime I’d suggest having a read of this book if you have time. If not I’ll mention the key aspects next week. Try the exercise now! Any questions just message me or tweet me at @inkstainsclaire.

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