Anyone who knows me will testify that I’m not usually stuck for words. It’s not that I don’t believe in writer’s block (obviously it is a thing) it’s that I’ve rarely experienced it. However, recently I had a period where I was spinning my wheels (metaphorically) because one project was finished, another was waiting for comments from my agent, and I needed to start something new while I was in that limbo-land of between. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write, but I couldn’t decide what to write. I had a couple of back-burner projects, one of them with 18,000 words already written, but I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that it ‘sparked joy’.* And if it didn’t spark joy in me it wasn’t going to do much for my readers. So perhaps it was time to stop digging through my bottom drawer projects and start something new.
My stories usually start with an idea for a scene, a situation and then work outwards from there.
I love a good opening sentence. One of my favourite opening sentences is from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids:
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts out by sounding like Sunday, there’s something seriously wrong somewhere.
That gives me shivers.
An opening sentence doesn’t have to be complex to hook the reader’s attention. This is the opening from Stephen King’s novella, The Gunslinger:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
I do, however, think Charlie Dickens went over the top with A Tale of Two Cities. I’d have been happy with: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ (That’s what most of us remember.) Instead we have:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Whew, I’m exhausted just reading the opening. (Yes, OK, styles were different then, and Dickens was being paid by the word.) He was much more succinct in A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead, to begin with.
Of course a story doesn’t need to start at the beginning. In Liz Williams’ first Inspector Chen novel, The Snake Agent, the beginning is close to the end:
Hanging by his heels and twisting slowly in the draught that slipped beneath the crimson door, Detective Inspector Chen tried desperately to attract the demon’s attention.
I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly got my attention. We do find out what led up to that moment, of course.
A good opening should lead us into the story. There’s all kinds of writing advice out there.
- Start in medias res (in the middle of the action).
- Start as late in the plot as you can.
- Don’t stress over your opening, you can always come back and fix it later.
Whatever advice you take, and whatever the ‘experts’ say, make the opening your own. An opening can set a scene, introduce a character, set tone and attitude, reveal character voice, make us ask questions, set a story in motion, and most importantly, make us want to read on. Hopefully your opening will do more than one of those things. Take a look at some of these.
- It was the day my grandmother exploded. – Iain Banks (The Crow Road)
- The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson (Neuromancer)
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell (1984)
- All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina)
- There was once a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it. – C.S. Lewis (Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
- Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. – J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter)
- Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. – Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God)
- I’m pretty much fucked. – Andy Weir (The Martian)
To return to my brief moment of stuckness, I decided to see if I could come up with an opening to shake myself out of it. Without thinking too deeply or worrying unduly about where it might lead I gave myself ten minutes and sat down to scribble random first lines.
- It was a sunny day in Hell and Chaff was musing on the fate of the world, or more precisely on the fate of one particular human in it.
- From his vantage point in low orbit, Royn could see the red-brown planet slowly spinning below him.
- As the last notes of the chorus died away Exie smiled to herself and thought, Got away with it, again.
- If Adrian continued eating like this the whole household would be bankrupt within a month.
- Lola reached out in wonder to touch the questing nose of the dragonet, barely noticing the dark shadow that loomed over her left shoulder.
- I’ve never died before, thought Maximilian. This should be interesting.
- Eva was on a mission—in search of the perfect pair of shoes.
- Rain splashed into Polliarno’s eyes. Oh, this was bad. It was very bad.
- Zoran ran his disfigured hand over the satin-smooth finish of the casket.
- If this was what passed for perfection in this place, Craeg wanted out.
- Alden waited quietly in line, hoping the big man wouldn’t notice him.
- The clouds nestled into the bottom of the valley like a flock of woolly sheep.
- Cordelia wanted a drink of water.
- Danzig curled in the belly of the boat wondering if you could die from sea-sickness.
- The vehicle that bounced Marnie from one world to the next was an ambulance. How ironic.
- Jim downed the amber liquid in one searing gulp, cleared his throat, and pushed his glass forward for a refill.
- “I used to be able to do that,” the old woman said as the young man took the stairs two at a time.
I scribbled seventeen of them in ten minutes. Do any of them spark joy? I don’t know, but some of them are already attracting story elements to themselves in my head. Some are short story ideas, some may be more. Or I may just sit down again and write another list.
What do you do when you’re stuck?
*With apologies to Marie Kondo