Showing posts with label story openings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story openings. Show all posts

Saturday, May 8

Lester Dent's Short Story Structure: 3 Elements of a Great Story Opening

Lester Dent's Short Story Structure: 3 Elements of a Great Story Opening

Let’s talk about strong story openings. 

I’ve been writing a series of blog posts on Lester Dent’s Short Story Structure and realized that I had more to say about story openings than would fit in there. So!

Lester Dent on Strong Story Openings

Here’s what Dent wrote about what made a story opening strong:

“1--First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with” [1]

This, then, is Dent's advice for how to hook a reader: 

1. Put the protagonist in trouble,
2. hint at a mystery or some sort of problem that needs to be solved, and
3. make it clear that the protagonist must solve it.

That’s fine, but how does one do this in practise?

An Example

What do you think of this opening?

“I'd never given much thought to how I would die—though I'd had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”

That’s the first line of the prologue from Twilight, Book 1. I know you may dislike Stephenie Meyer’s books, and fair enough. They aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. But that opening clearly satisfies (1), it puts the protagonist in a LOT of trouble, so much that she feels her death is inevitable.

The prologue is a flash-forward. And, yes, a flash-forward can be tricky, but I think Meyer pulled this one off. Because of it we know what the end stakes are, we know where she is headed. And we care about her more since she would willingly die in the place of someone she cared about.

But what about Dent’s (2) and (3)?

The Opening

Here's a quick summary of the first few paragraphs of Twilight: Bella, a teenager, is going to live with her dad in a town she detests. But, of course, there’s a twist. She is going willingly. 

“My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt — sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.

“In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. It was in this town that I'd been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That was the year I finally put my foot down; these past three summers, my dad, Charlie, vacationed with me in California for two weeks instead.

“It was to Forks that I now exiled myself—an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks.” (Twilight, Stephenie Meyer)

We see the protagonist, Bella, travelling into exile to live with her father who she thinks of not as “dad” but as “Charlie.” 

Rather than her parents dragging her off to live somewhere she detests, she is going voluntarily because she loves her Mom and she realizes that she and her new husband need to be alone for a bit. She sacrifices herself. This is Dent’s (3). Only Bella can make this sacrifice.

Not only is Bella’s sacrifice unusual--one generally doesn’t expect this unselfishness from a teenager--but it is admirable. And we’re curious. Why? Why are you doing this? Sure it is admirable--but why are you doing it? I wanted to know more about this Bella person. That’s Dent’s (2). We are handed a mystery. Perhaps a smallish mystery compared to those that are introduced later, but it is enough to get us reading the next sentence. And the next, and the next (and so on).

A Challenge

I challenge you to read the first few paragraphs of one of your favorite stories. What is it about those paragraphs that made you care about the characters? Are Dent’s criteria met? Is the protagonist put in some kind of trouble? Is a mystery raised? Must the protagonist be the one to solve it?

Sometimes it also helps to note the point of view. Is the story written from the first person perspective? The second? Third? Each of these has its peculiar strengths and weaknesses. 

I will resume my Lester Dent series soon. It has been taking me longer than expected because I am  using it to write an action-adventure (at first I tried writing a cozy mystery, but Dent’s structure just wasn’t made for that). I’ll publish the next installment of the series next week.

In the meantime, have a great week! I’ll see you again next week and, as always, good writing. 😀


1. The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot

Lester Dent's Short Story Fiction Formula: Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Friday, December 5

Story Openings: Five Choices

Mythcreants is fast becoming one of my favorite blogs. Chris Winkle’s articles have the enviable quality of being both witty and informative.

I started off the day today by feeding Twitter. I comb through various blogs I’ve subscribed to (I use and love it; and, no, I don’t have an affiliate relationship with them!), read the articles and then tweet links to those I found myself wishing I’d written.

Well, you know how it is, I started reading one article, followed a link to another and then fell down the social media version of the rabbit hole.[1]

Happily, though, I found “The Keys to a Great Opening Scene” over at Mythcreants. “The Keys” is the kind of post I look for, the kind of thing I love to read then keep in the back of my mind as I review my recent reads.

Then I thought, this is a blog post! I can use CS’s five-keys-to-writing-a-great-opening and go through the last few books I read, books that I enjoyed, to see how they score. (The books I look at will also be best sellers; I add that qualification as a kind of objective measure. That way you’ll know it wasn’t just me and three other people who thought these books were fabulous.)

Before I get started I’d like to make it clear that I agree with CW. Each of his five keys do (IMHO) make for a stronger opening. But, that said, many wonderful books, books that have sold fabulously well, lack one or more of these features. In that light I want to stress that if a book’s opening doesn’t receive a perfect score it’s not meant to reflect negatively on the book. No. I mention it to embolden nervous writers to try out different things, to experiment.

The Criteria

First, let’s take a quick look at the criteria Chris Winkle puts forward in his article The Keys to a Great Opening Scene. (I urge you to read CW’s article and to allow yourself to follow his rabbit warren of links. His site has some of the best articles on writing I’ve come across.)

1. Immediate Action

Chris Winkle writes:

“[...] surprising them [readers] with action and conflict in your opening scene is the single most effective way to keep them reading.”

CW links to another of his articles, one in which he discusses conflict in-depth (see: Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story). I’m not going to go into the kind of depth CW has, but I’ll just mention ...

a. Conflict within a character

The protagonist has conflicting desires. Part of him wants to find the buried treasure of the ancients even if it kills him while another part wants to stay at home with his family and watch his children grow up. 

Or the protagonist wants to become partner in the leading law firm in New York but she also wants to be there for her spouse who was recently diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease. Unfortunately, she can’t do both.

b. Conflict between one character and another

There’s goal centered conflict where the protagonist and antagonist each want the same thing but only one of them can have it. If Indiana Jones brings the Ark back to America then Dr. René Belloq can’t bring it to Hitler, and vice versa. 

But there’s also conflict between ideals. Again drawing from Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones cared about the artifacts themselves while Belloq was only interested in what the artifact could do for him. (The same could be said regarding their views of people, especially Marion.)

c. Conflict between the protagonist’s allies

Strictly speaking this is a subdivision of (b), but it feels different enough to warrant it’s own point. As before, this conflict could be internal or external. 

Internal: For example, a personality conflict. One person is loud and likes telling off-color jokes while another despises off-color jokes and just wants quiet so they could, I don’t know, read, sleep, write or merely hear oneself think. (Not, of course, that I’ve ever been in that situation personally. Of course not.)

External: Not all of the merry band of adventurers have the same goal. for example, in The Matrix, Cypher regrets taking the red pill and—far from wanting to destroy the matrix—wants to reenter it.

Again, I urge you to read CW’s article, “The Keys to a Great Opening Scene.”

Looks like I’m going to have to pick this up on Monday! Next time I’ll explore the pros and cons of beginning a story with a trailer or prologue.

Update: Here is an index to the posts in this series:

- Story Openings: Five Choices (the current post)
- Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist
- Story Openings: Tags and Traits: Bringing Characters to Life
- Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes
- Story Openings: The Power of Paradox (upcoming)


1. I want to share something with you that made me chuckle. Science Fiction and Fantasy author Tim Powers recently said:

“[...] you go to Wikipedia for some virtuous reason, because you need to find out about something. Except there’s those words in blue and you click on those and oh gee what is that, and pretty soon you’re eight levels in and you can’t find your way back to the page you started out wanting to look at. And then there’s a little sidebar that says ‘two-headed dog,’ and you think, well, jeez, what the hell’s that.

“And then if anything leads you to YouTube, you’ve had it.”

That’s from Mitch Wagner’s interview with Tim Powers: Interview With a Secret Historian. It’s a great read. Thanks to +Andy Goldman for recommending it.

Photo credit: "spence" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 3

Conflict: What Is It Good For?

Conflict: What Is It Good For?

It seems to me that there are six general ways to open a story. The first way, as I discussed last week, is with description. The second way to open a story is with conflict.


We are told this over and over again: every story needs some conflict. Many times, when we think about conflict we think about violent action. For example:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” (The Gunslinger by Stephen King)

No bullets were fired but one feels it wouldn’t go well for the the man in black were the gunslinger to catch him.

Another example:

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” (The Trial by Franz Kafka)

Being arrested when one has not done anything truly wrong is not good. We have an immediate sense of the stakes: life and death. Also, though, one wonders: If he didn’t do anything truly wrong, then what was the charge? Why was he arrested?

Or even:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. (Murphy by Samuel Beckett)

There is no violence here, not even implied violence. But there is conflict. This sentence seems to imply that the protagonist lives a boring life in a boring world and longs for something that will interest him or give him pleasure. The question: Will he find it?

The Purpose of Conflict

Why does a story need conflict? Or, to put it another way, what does conflict do for a story, why does it keep folks turning pages? I think it’s because conflict raises questions in a reader’s mind. It makes us curious

Conflict, by its very nature, implies a goal and so asks a question: will the goal be attained? If I walked into a room and two people were at fisticuffs I would wonder: 

- Why are they fighting? (motivation)
- What are they fighting for? (goal)

The reason for the upset could be as mundane as one fellow spilled his drink on the other. In this case the goal might be the satisfaction of having exacted payment for the infraction.

Not the most exciting stuff, granted, but—just thinking about it now—I can’t think of any conflict that wouldn’t bring questions along with it. (Perhaps you can, though. If so, please leave a comment!)

Conflict raises questions and questions create narrative drive.

Asking questions is what writers want readers to do. Why? Because it generates narrative drive.

As Lee Child says, if a person is presented with a question they’ll tend to stick around until it’s answered. We can’t help ourselves! It’s the way we’re wired. (Okay, maybe not you, but most people.)

For example, let’s say that before a commercial break we’re asked who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. We might not care who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, but chances are more people will stick around because the question was asked than if it hadn’t been. (BTW, the recipient was Doris Lessing.)

Here’s how Child put it:

"[H]umans are hard-wired to want the answer to a question. When the remote control was invented, it threw the TV business through a loop. How would you keep people around during a commercial? So TV producers started posing a question at the start of the commercial break, and answering it when the program returned. (Think sports—Who has the most career grand slams?) Even if you don’t care about the answer, Child said, you stick around because you’re intrigued." (Lee Child at Thrillerfest 2012)

That’s it for conflict! Next time we’ll look at puzzle openings. (Or should I say, “Will we look at puzzle openings next time? Who knows! Stay tuned.)

Friday, October 31

Six Ways To Begin A Story

Six Ways To Begin A Story

Openings are frustrating. At least for me. So much is riding on them. Often, if you don’t catch your reader’s interest with the first sentence their eye will wander.

It seems to me there are 6 general kinds of openings. I’m sure you could make a case for their being 5 or 7 or some other number, but I’m going to hold firm—for now at least—with 6.

Let’s start with ...


Some stories open by describing the story world. For example:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

That is the first line of, that’s right, “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. This sentence is about where and who, there isn’t even a trace, a smidgeon, of conflict. 

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

That’s the first line from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” Again, no visible conflict.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

You likely recognize that sentence, it’s the first sentence from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Paul Clifford.” This sentence is famous, or infamous, for being the epidomy of what one does not want to do when it comes to descriptive openings. I think the sentence begins all right (but then and again I’m a fan of dark and story nights) but then it meanders somewhat drunkenly toward the whimsically unconnected. 

So, having seen the good and the bad, why might we want to open with description? Two reasons.

A. The setting, the world, is why we’re interested in the story.

As Orson Scott Card mentions in his book “Characters & Viewpoint,” some stories are primarily about a milieu while others are primarily about characters, ideas or events. In Milieu stories we’re interested in the world at least as much—perhaps more—than we are the characters. Or, rather, the world is a character and it’s the one we’re the most interested in.

What we’re really interested in is the cultures of that world, the alien biologies, the customs, the inventions, the magic, and so on.

I’ve already mentioned the first line of “The Hobbit” (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”) That’s information about the world, and it’s interesting information. My response as a child was, “What! Hobbits live in holes in the ground?! How cool is that. And what on earth is a hobbit?” Right from the beginning I was eager to learn about this universe.

Here’s another way of creeping up on the point I’ve been trying to make: If exploring the world is the whole point of the story, then it’s perfectly appropriate to alert people to this from the first sentence.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that Gibson’s “Neuromancer” was a milieu story—I think it might be more of an idea story—but whatever the case (punny, punny)—the world that Gibson created was certainly creative and different and utterly captivating.

B. To establish a particular mood.

Charlie Jane Anders, author of the article, “How To Create A Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story,” writes:

“This [scene-setting] can be a workmanlike "Smith yawned and looked around his space capsule" thing. Or it can be a gorgeous literary flourish, that sets the mood and creates a strong image in the reader's mind at the start of the story.”

An example: The beginning of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I wrote about this recently (On Breaking The Rules) because it breaks one of the canards of writing: Don’t begin a story with a character waking up. But Flynn does! And—as millions of satisfied readers will attest—it works beautifully.

Why? Because those opening paragraphs set the mood of the book. They anchor us within Nick’s psyche. Because they set the stage for what is to come. (And, last but certainly not least, because they were beautiful and powerful.)

That’s it for today! As I mentioned, this post is part of a planned series. Future posts will cover other sorts of openings.

Update: Here are links to the posts in this series:

1. Description (this post)
2. Conflict: What Is It Good For?
3. Puzzle Openings
4. Archetypal Openings
5. Character Driven Openings
6. Humorous Openings

Photo credit: "aussicht vom wilseder berg (169,2m)" by fRedi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, August 30

How Not To Begin A Story

How Not To Begin A Story

There are many blogs that give good advice on the art and craft of writing. They have wonderful articles on story structure, finding your voice, sentence construction, admonishments to eschew weak verbs in favor of strong ones, as well as dire warnings against the ever-present danger of giving in to adverb use.

In my opinion, one of the best blogs is Jane Friedman: writing, reading and publishing in the digital age. (Of course Jane Friedman's blog is about a great many things.)

Anyway, enough of that. Let's talk about what's gotten me so darn excited!

K.M. Weiland wrote a post for Jane Friedman and it's one of the best posts on story openings I've read, so I wanted to both share it with you and encourage you to head on over to Jane Friedman's blog and read it for yourself. The title is: 4 Big Pitfalls in Story Openings.

Also, K.M. Weiland has come out with a book on story structure: Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. I bought it right after I finished the article, I'm sure it'll be worth the $2.99. I'd spend more than that on a coffee!

4 Ways Not To Start A Story

When I was a kid, I think I was five, I decided I'd tell my father a story. I think it went something like this:
I got up this morning and I dressed myself but my shoes weren't right so mommy helped me and then I walked to school and then I saw Michele in the playground and we talked and then the bell rang and then ...
It was horrible.

One thing that was missing was ...

1. Suspense: Raise a question with your very first sentence.

I've talked about this before, but the first sentence--the very first sentence!--of your story should raise a question in the readers mind.

Humans are suckers for wanting a question answered. This is used against us in dozens of ways every day.

You've probably seen those TV commercials where a huckster asks: "How much do you think you'd have to pay for this mop in the store? Well, I'm going to throw in another mop. That's right. How much would you'd pay for this now? I'll give it to you for the low, low, price of ..."

Humans can be manipulated in a number of ways. As Lee Child mentioned, sports shows try to retain viewer attention across commercial breaks by asking a sports question before the break. The idea is that viewers, even if they don't care about the question or answer, will be more likely to stick around.

Raising a question in the readers mind in that very first sentence is vitally important. (Also, answering it at the end of the book is equally important. If you don't, there will be howls of protest.)

K.M. Weiland points out that the strength of this technique can be diluted in a number of ways:

a. Don't withhold the protagonist's name.

K.M. Weiland writes:
Award-winning author Linda Yezak explains, “[N]ameless, faceless characters don’t usually draw readers into the story. In other words, get your readers to bond with your characters early … [by letting] the reader know who they are.”

b. Don't make readers guess about the age of the protagonist.

You don't have to be precise, but readers want to have a ballpark idea of the protagonist's age.

c. Give your readers at least one peek into your protagonist's personality early on.

K.M. Weiland writes that this could be his:

- occupation
- a prominent personality trait
- a defining action

d. Don't make your readers guess about where the scene is taking place.

K.M. Weiland writes:
"Don’t leave your characters exploring a white room. Readers need to know if the scene is taking place in a café, a forest, a bedroom, or an airplane."

e. Make it clear who the other characters in the scene are.

When you introduce a character at least give the name of the character. I'm talking about major characters here, not characters that appear for a few sentences and then disappear. Some readers expect a character to stay around if you give them a name.

K.M. Weiland has three more points, but I think this post is long enough! I'll continue on Monday.

Fabulous Writing Resource: Roy Peter Clark on iTunes (FREE!)

I've included this link in my Twitter feed, but I wanted to share it with you here as well. Roy Peter Clark has put up a number of short audio files with fabulous tips on how to strengthen your writing.

This is the kind of thing I wish I'd listened to when it was just starting out.

Roy Peter Clark on iTunes: Roy's Writing Tools.

PS: My apologies. I pressed a mysterious key combo--I have no idea what it was!--and inadvertently published a draft of this post. I'm sorry for any confusion that caused.

Photo credit: "untitled" by martinak15 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.