John Klima previously worked at Asimov’s, Analog, and Tor Books before returning to school to earn his Master’s in Library and Information Science. He now works full time as a librarian. When he is not conquering the world of indexing, John edits and publishes the Hugo Award-winning genre zine Electric Velocipede. The magazine has is also a four-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award. In 2007 Klima edited an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories based on spelling-bee winning words called Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories. In 2011, Klima edited a reprint anthology of fairytale retellings for Night Shade Books titled Happily Ever After. He and his family live in the Midwest. You can follow him on Twitter @EV_Mag.
There are countless writing books and countless lists of writing tips that trot out the same maxim again and again: make sure your story has a killer opening. I’m here to debunk that myth.
It’s not that your story doesn’t need a strong opening. There are countless times when I’ve read submissions where the story doesn’t start going until the five or sixth page, and in a ten-page story, waiting that long to get going is death. There isn’t much room, get going! On the same token, I’ve read almost as many stories that have a great opening that just fall flat by the end.
I’m not sure which bothers me more.
Let’s break down why this myth gets trotted out time after time, why it actually matters, and in what ways it doesn’t matter.
First, the reason that this myth consistently makes its way into writing advice is that it’s meant to convey to you the importance of keeping the reader reading. If you have a catchy opening, the reader will be sure to keep turning pages, right? And we want readers to keep turning pages and digesting the words we wrote, right? Of course we do.
In some ways then, a catchy opening makes perfect sense. Give the reader something intriguing, and off we go. And catchy doesn’t necessarily mean explosions, nudity, action sequences, and the like. A catchy opening can be slow and deliberate. So let’s change the word ‘catchy’ to ‘compelling’ since ‘catchy’ implies forgettable pop tunes and we don’t want our stories to be forgettable. Think of Henry James and how deliberate and slow-paced The Turn of the Screw is (if you haven’t read The Turn of the Screw go do it; for all its brevity, it’s still arduous and slow, but worth it) and still how compelling it is:
“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” – Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
Whew! That’s a long opening sentence. You finish it virtually breathless much like the literary audience listening to the tale. I know that James isn’t for everyone, but for me, that opening sentence made me keep heading down the page to learn what the tale was that left the audience breathless. But the opening isn’t full of action and excitement, in fact, it’s rather confusing. But it still works to keep the reader reading.
I work primarily with short fiction, so a strong opening is particularly important to me. When working at 10,000 words and less, there’s not a lot of space for exposition and you had better start moving into the story proper from the first sentence. I continually see stories that take a few pages to start, and by then you’ve already lost your reader. The writer typically has one paragraph to grab my attention and keep me reading.
So we should put all our efforts into making the opening as best as we can, right?
Well, no. Not if you’re going to forego making the rest of the story strong, too. The trick is that your story needs to be strong from beginning to end. A strong opening followed by a weak end is just as much a failure of a story as a weak opening with a strong end. Writing a poor opening means you lose readers who don’t wait for your story to get going. Writing a poor ending means you’ve ticked off a bunch of readers who decided to stick with you to the end.
I know that’s easier said than done, but unfortunately for you, there’s no way around it. Your story has to open strong and finish strong, whether it’s 500 words or 500,000 words. Look at your strong ending, can you replicate that language and strength in the beginning of your piece? Can you start your piece later and just cut your current opening? Take your strong beginning and sustain that language and power through to the end. If you can’t pinpoint what makes something strong, let someone else take a look at your writing and help you.
The best, and yet most difficult, advice I can give is to set the work aside and come back to it after some time. One night might be enough. If you can do it, write something else (this obviously works better with short fiction) and then come back to the first piece. You’ll no longer be in that world and you’ll be reading it closer to how a reader will see it instead of your brain filling in gaps.
Heck, I’m guilty of telling people to write strong openings to stories. Just don’t spend so much time working on the start of the story that you give the rest of it the short end of the stick.
Really good stuff John, particularly given your relationship to the publishing industry and the fact that you've had first hand experience with looking at whether or not a story hooks you enough to keep you reading or not, and if so how does that hook work.
As for a question you asked, I'm much more disappointed when a story falls flat, or peters out at the end, than whether or not it has a strong opening. I'm often frustrated when a short story (or even a novel) has a strong opening and is zipping along and then ends in a way that feels like either the writer never had an ending and didn't know what to do, or they ran out of space and butchered their ending to get it to fit.
I feel that the 'strong opening' myth is perpetuated because it is perceived as a 'trick' an author can use to stand out in a pile of slush. It's a calling card that says, "Look at me!" Of course, just as in real life, looks aren't everything; you know, it's what's inside that counts, and all that…It's the rare gem that has it through and through, and it's a real downer to find out the rock on which you spent a month's salary is really cubic zirconium. As an editor, nothing irked me more than a great opening followed by mess. I felt tricked, and tricked does not a happy editor make.
Thanks for the article.