After reading Michael J. Sullivan’s article, “Starting out Strong – How to Write a Killer Opening” over at Mythic Scribes, I was reminded of the effort I went through working on the opening of my book, Ohlen’s Arrow. My original opening was action packed and very engaging, or so I thought.
Like the love of a first child, we can become enamored with the beginning of our book, especially after we have spent hours or even days writing and re-writing it until we are convinced it is perfection incarnate and have no room for improvement. Then someone can come along and point out just how much work it really needs.
Sullivan worked with me on my opening chapter and as he pointed out in Starting out Strong, I was giving away too much information without really engaging the reader/editor early enough. So I rewrote it, cutting it down to just three paragraphs. I also realized that I was telling the reader what was going on rather than showing them. “Show, don’t tell” is very simple advice but it’s a powerful approach that really sets a story apart from the rest of the herd.
To show you how the opening of a story can impact the reader, below is the current version of my book’s beginning. Read this and notice I’m showing you some intense action in just a few brief paragraphs but I’m raising more questions than answers. What is a cru’gan? Why was it there? Who is the character that fires the arrow?
The arrow sank deep into the creature’s throat and it fell backward in a spray of blood, twitching and clawing at the wooden shaft protruding from its severed wind pipe. The man lowered his bow and crouched down into the bushes in case there were others. He remained still but watched and listened intently to see if he had stumbled upon a lone cru’gan or if it had been part of a patrol. At first the only sound was the wet gurgling coming from the cru’gan’s throat. Now it lay still and silent and the only thing the man could hear was the evening breeze through the pine trees.
After several minutes passed he retrieved his arrow and quickly searched the body, then rolled it under a pile of briars out of sight. He kicked the creature’s blood into the dust and pine needles to obscure the evidence of the encounter, then moved silently away into the pine forest amidst the diminishing evening light.
The book begins with a single action word, indicating the sound an arrow makes when it strikes its target. The next sentence is somewhat gory, which captures the reader’s attention, but it’s not gratuitously so. The third sentence establishes who fired the arrow, something about where he is, and that the sense of danger may not be over (“…in case there were others.”) The opening segment finishes without answering the question of why the encounter occurred, why the man wanted to conceal the evidence, or where he was going. This curiosity is what will spur the reader to continue.
This opening segment is also short enough to fit on the back cover of a book, which can help sales.
For contrast, here is the longer original version. Notice how I was telling the reader a lot of information and only showing a little. It was also too long-winded and didn’t create curiosity within the opening paragraph:
His feet found the trail to be familiar and he quickened his pace. Normally he traveled with a slow cautiousness, always alert for the presence of enemies and danger. Today was different. He was heading home.
The tall pine and fir were fragrant in the afternoon sun. Their needles softened the ground and quieted his footsteps. The sun was setting and it cast long autumnal shadows where it slivered in between the forest trees. He had hunted this forest in childhood and learned its ways and paths under the guidance of his grandfather. The old man had been wise enough to allow the boy to get lost on occasion, always knowing he was safe as he struggled to find his way back to the village. Those lessons, although seemingly dangerous and somewhat frightening to the boy, had shaped him into the ranger he had become as a grown man. It built within him an innate sense of direction and an awareness of his surroundings. Those lessons had saved his life on more than one occasion.
The trail was worn and solid. His people had walked its length for generations for trade with neighboring villages. It’s warriors moved along its course on the way to hunting grounds. Today it saw their best warrior returning home. It had been many years since his feet trod this ground. It had been far too long.
A musky scent in the air brought his senses back to the moment. He stopped and slowly looked around him, listening intently and sniffing the air. A faint breeze came from the north. There was a slight incline rising to his right up into the tree line. Whatever he smelled was gone now, but he knew it wasn’t natural to this area. He was familiar with every kind of animal in the forest of his ancestral home and he knew their ways and habits. This scent was different, not of any animal in the area and although it seemed animal in nature, there was also something malignant and human about it.
He crouched low and began to work his way off the trail and up into the trees, moving slowly but deliberately. The hill got steeper and the trees became close and dark. He could see a narrow line of rimrock up the slope ahead, stretching from side to side just below the crest of the hill. He paused and closed his eyes, listening intently.
He heard a faint snap up the slope to his right at the base of the short rock cliff. His bow was already in his hand, an arrow nocked and ready to draw. He scanned the hillside and rocks amidst the trees and brush, moving his head slowly from side to side to change his perspective on the area ahead. He heard another faint snap and froze.
The opening continued on for another twenty paragraphs after that, with a detailed description of how the man shoots the creature, followed by even more description of it’s physical characteristics. It was long-winded, tedious, and did nothing to engage the reader’s curiosity. The new book opening gives the reader enough to get a sense of what’s going on but draws them into reading more rather than presenting them the full enchilada on a single, drawn out platter.