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December 2016
A Message from Kristin Nelson

9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 5

Kristin Nelson

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.
For Part 4, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#5) Your novel opens with running or other pulse-pounding action. 

If you are guilty of this one, don’t beat yourself up. We promise you’re not alone. Writers are told they need to start in medias res (literally “in the middle of things”) if they want to grab the reader from page one. Solid advice, but when it translates to action for action’s sake, therein lies the problem.

Just so we’re clear, we’re not suggesting that you nix every bit of action in your opening scene. The problem arises when an opening provides only action to the exclusion of:

  • All other narrative elements, like character, setting, voice, tone, and context. Without context, readers are left wondering, Why is this action happening? Who’s involved? What outcome should I be rooting for? Remember that confused readers might stick with you for a few pages, but if your opening scene introduces more questions than it answers, readers are likely to abandon your tale.
  • Structural relevance. Does the opening action sequence mirror, foreshadow, or lead logically into something that will happen later in the story—for instance, the inciting incident, midpoint reversal, climax, or resolution? If your opening action scene only exists to create excitement that you hope will hook a reader, then you might be in trouble.

The type of opening scene you write relies heavily on your genre. Action-forward openings tend to be more appropriate in commercial fiction, as opposed to literary fiction (which is more about artful language and thematic explorations of the human condition, so literary openings tend to provide immediate insight into a character or immersion into a setting). Genres like thrillers, military science fiction, and romantic suspense lend themselves to action-forward openings, but readers of cozy mysteries, contemporary romance, women’s fiction, and historical fiction expect to be thoroughly introduced to character, setting, and situational conflict when they encounter your first chapter. So consider genre and reader expectations as well as your novel’s overall structure when crafting your opening.

The final takeaway here is that in medias res is solid advice…if you take it to mean “start in the middle of action,” not “start in the middle of an action scene.” Action means (a) there’s a character on your “page stage,” (b) he or she is doing something other than merely thinking (see part 1 of this article series), and (c) he or she is in some sort of enticing predicament.

  • Maybe it’s a 70-year-old woman on her knees in the garden behind her house. It’s raining, and she’s up to her elbows in mud, desperately trying to bury something. Or dig something up.
  • Maybe it’s a scrawny middle-school-aged kid standing in the middle of the gym. The climbing rope hangs before him. His PE teacher stands to one side, arms crossed across his beefy chest, and his classmates encircle him, some cheering him on, others chanting insults.
  • Maybe it’s a married couple standing at the sink, washing dishes. The wife dries the last dish, while the husband calmly turns off the faucet and announces that he wants a divorce.

All of these story openings begin in medias res because they begin in the middle of a situation laden with dramatic tension. We don’t know the nature of that tension yet, but we will happily keep reading because (and this is the important part) each of these situations comes pre-packaged with an impending sense of What happens next? Yet none of these is an action scene.

In contrast, we see a lot of sample pages in our query inbox that start with a character running. An action scene. Sweat pouring. Lungs burning. Muscles cramping. Feet stumbling over rocks and tree roots. The sound of a pursuer’s footsteps ringing out in the darkness. These writers hope we’ll be just as breathless and scared as their characters are. But this type of opening lacks context (which means readers aren’t yet invested in your character’s plight). It’s an opening that’s tough to make fresh because we see it all the time. Plus, it can only lead to one of two possible outcomes: the character will either slip her pursuer or she’ll get caught. That makes this type of scene skim-or-skip material. Worse, it makes false tension out of all the pages the writer devotes to pouring sweat, burning lungs, cramping muscles, stumbling feet, and darkness. And false tension makes readers feel cheated.

What you’re after is dramatic tension, which you can only evoke to the extent that you can make readers understand why this character and why this situation? I’d much rather find out who that 70-year-old woman is and why she’s digging in her garden in the rain! Wouldn’t you?

Study the difference, and then practice creating story openings that entice rather than merely excite. This skill will take you another step further down your path toward storytelling mastery!

Pub Rants University

Opening Pages that Lead to Yes! 2017-02-23

A Three-Session Workshop with Angie Hodapp

Thursday, February 23 at 6:00-8:00 PM MT

This Webinar intensive is brought to you by NLA Digital.

Previous attendees of this Webinar have this to say about its impact:

“I found the opportunity to get fresh eyes on my work and have a professional opinion invaluable. Angie did a great job leading the Webinar and set the tone for the class being fun and useful. Having Kristin come in at the end made us work harder.” —S. S.

“This was an incredibly useful seminar for any querying writer. For me, figuring out what to focus on in the opening of a novel is very difficult. This Webinar helped my really focus on my opening and provided isolated feedback on what worked and what didn’t.” —M. C.

Sessions: 3 consecutive Thursdays (February 23, March 2, and March 9, 2017)

Duration of each session: 2 hours

Total contact time: 6 hours plus homework

Requirement: Attendees must use a phone for audio to call in and actively participate.

Class Limit: 12

Please note:

  1. This Webinar is a workshop and does not constitute a submission to NLA.
  2. Only fiction submissions are eligible for this Webinar. No memoirs or non-fiction works, please.
  3. Register early, as all attendees will have an assignment to do in preparation for the first session. Registered attendees will receive the assignment Thursday, January 26, 2017. Those who register after that date will receive the assignment as soon as they register. Registration will close (and a waitlist will open) as soon as all 12 spots are filled.

Workshop Description:

If your query letter or in-person pitch got you a request for sample pages, but your sample pages didn’t get you a request for a full manuscript, what went wrong? In this hands-on workshop led by Angie Hodapp, you’ll explore what agents are looking for in opening pages and learn ways to craft evocative beginnings that get your full manuscript read.

Each attendee must submit the first five pages of his or her novel and will be expected to actively workshop other attendees’ opening pages within the provided workshopping guidelines. We’ll discuss our works-in-progress and help each other brainstorm various possible entry points in relation to each work’s overall story structure. During the last session, March 9, Agent Kristin will join us to do a live, blind read on several revised opening pages. Join us and learn how to turn those sample requests into requests for full manuscripts!

What You’ll Learn:

  • The importance of establishing character, setting, and voice on page one.
  • How the opening image or scene should relate to a story’s overall structure.
  • How to introduce story questions that entice rather than confuse the reader.
  • How to avoid cliched openings.
  • What starting in medias res really means—and, more importantly, what it doesn’t.

Extras:

  • Angie will be on video as well as audio.
  • Attendees are welcome to ask questions throughout the Webinar.
  • Attendees will have access to the video recording of the Webinar for six months.

Angie Hodapp holds a BA in English education and an MA in English and communication development. A graduate of the Denver Publishing Institute, she has worked in professional writing and editing for sixteen years, the last six of which have been spent at Nelson Literary Agency. She teaches workshops at writing conferences and loves working with writers who are looking to hone their craft and get their work ready for publication.

Register Now
Recent News
Think Like an Agent

Can White Authors Write People of Color?

By

This question is sparking conversation in the adult-fiction world, but it seems to be front and center in the children’s realm. Attend any SCBWI regional or national meeting and this topic is sure to come up: Can a white author write a person of color?

The answer is yes. We live in a diverse world. In fact, in most contemporary settings, an all-white cast of characters would be odd, as it hardly reflects reality. So yes, a white author can write diverse cast.

However….

Before I discuss this further, I want to acknowledge two awesome movements that all writers need to be aware of:

  1. #ownvoices on Twitter
  2. WeNeedDiversebooks.org and #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter

Writers, if you haven’t spent any time listening in or participating in these Twitter conversations, I strongly recommend that you do. Even if you’re an experienced writer. Treat it like any other research you do to create and fully realized characters.

So let’s tackle my “however.” This endeavor is not to be taken lightly. Make your characters realistic and grounded, and avoid falling back on stereotypes. Instead of merely describing your characters’ skin color, build a realistic and complex backstory for each character: What past experiences related to their heritage have shaped their identities and worldviews, and how will those things affect the ways in which they think, behave, and interact with others during the course of your story? Research extensively. Engage sensitivity readers of the same background(s) as your character(s). Expect and listen to criticism.

And read, read, read. Here are a few articles to get you started. I’m no expert, and I’m still learning along with everyone else. But the authors on my client list are from a variety of backgrounds, and we all support diversity in literature.

Know that some readers, respectfully, will not read your book if you are a white author writing people of color. And you need to be 100% okay with that. It is a reader’s prerogative.

Finally, begin to engage in similar conversations related to writing characters of different genders (it ain’t just male and female, folks!), sexualities, and physical abilities. The depth and range of characters that you create for your novels is limited only by your willingness to step out of yourself and into the lives of those who are not like you!

Kristin's Book Club

A Novel You'll Think About for Months After

Are you a cat person or a dog person? This question opens Max Berry’s LEXICON, which supposes that all humans can be categorized based on their answers to 10 questions and then manipulated by a set of unique words that rewire their brains and compromise their free will.

This thriller will keep you thinking months after you’ve closed the book. It’s frighteningly prescient, given social media’s ability to target you with ads and other content!

2017 Reading List:

  • STATION 11, Emily St. John Mandel (Fiction)
  • BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Nonfiction)
  • THE GOLDFINCH, Donna Tartt (F)
  • MAKERS & TAKERS, Rana Foroohar (NF)
  • MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY, Fredrik Backman (F)
  • FIRST WOMEN: THE GRACE AND POWER OF AMERICA’S FIRST LADIES, Kate Anderson Brower (NF)
  • BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, Ruta Sepetys (F)
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