Outlawed openings: can they work?-author toolbox
Dreams, Flashbacks, and waking up
CAn you make an outlawed opening work?
Most writing advice blogs will tell you to never use dreams, flashbacks, or waking up to begin your story. Avoiding these outlawed openings are often the first piece of advice given out at “pages or pass” readings during any writer’s conference. There are posts all over Pinterest warning writers to stay away and with good reason. These types of openings are all too common and they almost always fail.
This week I received an email from a former client asking about opening her book with a “memory.” This is the advice I gave her:
The simple truth is that anything can be made into a compelling opening if done right. (The Hunger Games begins with Katniss waking up.) The difficultly is making these types of openings compelling.
If you believe this memory is the most effective means of introducing your story, then you have your answer. My best advice is to proceed with caution.
Tips for making your outlawed opening compelling:
Make sure you know the function the memory has in the story
The reason most “waking up” story beginnings fail is the lack of a defined purpose. The author choose to begin there because she didn’t know where else to begin. Novels need to start at the beginning of the story; therefore, the memory must have a clearly defined purpose for introducing it. In other words, why does the reader need to know this right now? By choosing to defy the convention of “starting the story with action,” then you need to be able to justify this choice. “Because I wanted it there,” doesn’t cut it.
That reason can’t be a backstory/world-building dump
No one cares about your elaborate world-building on page 1. No one cares about your character’s unrelated childhood tragedy. If you are putting a dream or memory sequence at the beginning of your story just to explain something to the reader, it will fail to engage her.
It must lay the foundation for the rest of the story.
That means that the rest of the book must be framed around /altered by whatever profound thing is revealed in the memory. By choosing to introduce your story with this memory, then it should affect everything that happens. To test this, try taking the memory away, if it changes how the reader will perceive what follows, then you know the information revealed is critical.
The voice in the opening dream/memory must match the rest of the book
The opening is the introduction, the foundation for the entire story. This sets up the expectation that everything after will match. If you break this convention, your will annoy your readers.
It cannot confuse the reader by causing an abrupt change in the narrative
The reader will assume that whatever happens in the opening sequence is the beginning of the real story. If you start with a dream, or a memory, the reader will feel duped and left to wonder if anything she just read is even pertinent to what follows. Readers do not like being tricked. Never begin your story with this intention. It isn’t clever. It’s an invitation to the reader to close** your book.
This memory needs to be the**, opening hook
It must either set up an important question or cause the reader to make an emotional connection with the character. Often these types of openings fail as a hook because they reveal the answer, rather than posing a question. The opening must create more questions than it answers. This leaves the reader wanting more. Trying for the emotional hook usually fails because slapping the reader with a sob story on page one comes across as a cheap ploy. Until the reader is invested in character, she won’t care about her ugly backstory. This is difficult to do in an opening. Readers want to connect with the character’s current situation, then they will want to learn about her backstory.
Assuming your opening meets these criteria and you have decided to proceed, make this opening brief so the real story can begin right away.
Genre also makes a difference. You will get more license for philosophical openings in women’s fiction than in urban fantasy, but not always. Voice matters. If the voice is engaging, readers will forgive anything.
Find a book where you thought this technique worked, and study this example. Then, incorporate those same ideas into your opening.
And finally, make sure you get feedback from your beta readers. These openings are discouraged for good reason. Making them work requires advanced writing skills. You may think you have accomplished your goals, but a reader may disagree.
While most writing advice blogs will tell you to avoid these types of openings, nothing about writing is absolute. There will always be people who find a way to break the “rules” and these are the writers people remember.
Do you know a novel where a forbidden opening worked? Let me know in the comments
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