The disturbing truth about openings


Silk’s Post #104 — Change is good. Life teaches us early that the only sure thing in this world (besides death and taxes, of course) is change. So we might as well embrace it.

But how easily, and eagerly, we slide into our comfort zones. And once we’ve settled in to our comfy routines and they become the status quo, we tend to cling to them. Change can feel like a bucket of cold water in the face, or a push out the door into an unfamiliar landscape. We tend to defend ourselves against disruption, and sometimes – like sleepers who punch the snooze button and pull the covers over their heads – we even try to ignore or deny the intrusion of change.

Yet the opposite is also true. Every so often we get the urge for change and novelty (perfectly illustrated by the major lifestyle changes over the past couple of years for three-fifths of our tiny 5writers sample group). This can be a bracing, rejuvenating experience, one that can even become addictive or morph into a thrill-seeking lifestyle.

But whether change is voluntary or involuntary, it’s undeniably the impetus and lifeblood of every good story in every genre. Disruption starts plots rolling, creates character arcs, invites readers to come along for the ride … just to find out what happens next. If nothing is changing, there’s no possibility of jeopardy or challenge. In fact there’s simply nothing to write about.

End of story. Literally.

Writing guru James Scott Bell calls the static comfort zone “Happy People in Happy Land.” This is where stories go to die, often in the first few pages. This excerpt of his post on the excellent Kill Zone website (“Insider perspectives from today’s hottest thriller and mystery writers”), delivers some of the best advice I’ve seen on using creative disruption to hook readers with your opening:

You must grab [agents, editors and readers] on page one. How can you do that?

By beginning your novel with a disturbance to the lead’s ordinary world.

Why disturbance? Because readers read to worry. They want to be lost in the intense emotional anticipation over the plight of a character in trouble. Only when that connection is made does reader interest truly kick in.

But in their opening pages many writers fall into what I call the “Happy People in Happy Land” trap. They think that by showing the lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family or dog or whatever, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person, perhaps at the end of chapter one, or beginning of chapter two …

But that’s too long to wait. You need to stir up the waters immediately.

A disturbance is something that causes ripples in the placid lagoon of Happy Land. It can be anything, so long as it presents a change or challenge to the lead. (It’s important to note that this disturbance need not be “big” as in, say, a thriller prologue. The opening disturbance can be a jolt, however slight, that indicates to the lead that she is not having an ordinary moment here.)

And you need to have that jolt on page one, preferable paragraph one.

When you read this advice, it all seems so obvious. When you’re facing the blank white page of your opening, though, the awesome weight of getting those first few critical words perfectly right can trigger a bout of acute amnesia.

I can’t recommend James Scott Bell’s writing books highly enough, especially for their advice on critical points where writers often get stuck or take a wrong turn in the plot that takes them miles away from a good storyline. The 5Writers are looking to assemble a shortlist of great writing resources that we use and recommend, with links from this blog. In the meantime, here are two of his books I find indispensable:

plot and structurePlot & Structure – Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish (Writer’s Digest Books)





art of warThe Art of War for Writers – Fiction writing strategies, tactics and exercises (Writer’s Digest Books)


2 thoughts on “The disturbing truth about openings

  1. James Scott Bell is one of my favorite writing ‘gurus’. Love his books and even more so his workshops. I so enjoyed meeting him at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Great post, Silk, thank you!

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