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Exercise: Opening up

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Pam Hauck
Posted on: April 18, 2002
Reposted on: May 11, 2003
Reposted on: May 9, 2004
Reposted on: May 12, 2005
Reposted on: March 30, 2006

Exercise: Opening Up

Open books you like and read their openings. Do they start with a bang or more subtly, planting a question or a seed? What in the opening makes you want to continue reading?

The best stories grab a reader's attention with the very first sentence and hold it till the end. Whether you are writing a short story, novel or memoir your first few paragraphs have the ability to persuade a reader to turn the page and see what happens next. That makes effective openings one of the most important elements of writing.

Effective openings set the scene and give readers a sense of time and place while answering Who, What, When, Where and Why. They introduce intriguing characters sometimes faced with conflict or a major life change. J.R.R. Tolkien begins the "The Hobbit" with:

   In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,
   filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy
   hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and
   that means comfort.

There is much here to draw in the reader. What is a hobbit, and why does it live in a hole? Note the vivid descriptions of uncomfortable holes. And finally - I just knew as I read that that this hobbit's comfort was soon going to be disturbed...

"The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe opens with:

   Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
   Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
   While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
   As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
   "'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door-
   Only this, and nothing more."

Poe introduces an intriguing character in conflict. He sets this scene in a chamber and establishes the time as midnight. There is a sense of the end of something and the anticipation of something new. The tempest outside the chamber door piques my curiosity and I want to continue reading. The full poem can be found at http://www.bartleby.com/102/84.html

Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg starts "All Over But The Shoutin'" with:

   My mother and father were born in the most beautiful place on earth, in the
   foothills of the Appalachians along the Alabama-Georgia line. It was a place
   where gray mists hid the tops of low, deep-green mountains, where redbone
   and bluetick hounds flashed through the pines as they chased possums into
   the sacks of old men in frayed overalls, where old women in bonnets dipped
   Bruton snuff and hummed "Faded Love and Winter Roses" as they shelled purple
   hulls, canned peaches and made biscuits too good for this world. It was a
   place where playing the church piano loud was near as important as playing
   it right, where fearless young men steered long, black Buicks loaded with
   yellow whiskey down roads the color of dried blood, where the first frost
   meant hog killin' time and the mouthwatering smell of cracklin's would drift
   for acres from giant, bubbling pots. It was a place where the screams of
   panthers, like a woman's anguished cry, still haunted the most remote ridges
   and hollows in the dead of night, where children believed they could choke
   off the cries of night birds by circling one wrist with a thumb and
   forefinger and squeezing tight, and where the cotton blew off the wagons and
   hung like scraps of cloud in the branches of trees.

Braggs establishes his credibility as a story-teller with this opening. As the details of his Appalachian culture begin to unfold, there is a strong sense of place and I'm pulled into the scene. I want to continue reading to find out how his parents survived this harsh and hard, oppressive poverty.

For an opening full of suspense, the first seven pages of James Patterson's thriller "Violets Are Blue" can be found at: http://www.bookbrowse.com/index.cfm?page=title&titleID=924&view=excerpt

Assignment: Write an effective opening using 300 words or less. Make it compelling and pique our curiosity. Tug on our heartstrings and make us care what happens next to your characters. Your main objective is to pull us into the story and make us want to read more.

For the purpose of this exercise, it isn't necessary to write a complete story with a beginning, middle, and ending. This will allow you to use your 300 words to focus on an attention-grabbing opening.

When critiquing submissions, let writers know if you found the opening interesting. Did it grab and hold your attention? Do you care about the characters and want happens to them? If you were reading this in a bookstore would you want to buy the book based on the first 300 words? Let the writer know if and where your interest waned. Address what might make the opening more interesting.

Pam Hauck's wrap-up
Posted on: April 28, 2002

Thanks to everyone who participated and helped make this week's exercise a success. Each of you did a great job.

We have seen a broad variety of approaches to writing effective openings. Some started with a bang while others subtly planted questions that begged for answers. We were introduced to intriguing characters in conflict that piqued our curiosity and met other's that made us care about what happened to them through narrative and dialogue.

I found the critiques especially interesting this week. They reminded me that reader's tastes and interests can be as varied as writing styles.

Hopefully, the submissions and critiques have helped all of us learn more about writing effective openings and what persuades readers to turn the page and see what happens next.

Thanks to Rhéal for helping me develop this exercise and the opportunity to present it. I appreciate everyone's response and wish you all the best with finishing what you started.

Pam Hauck

Pam Hauck's wrap-up
Posted on: May 18, 2003

This is the second time we've run this exercise, and once again, it was a success.

The approaches to writing effective openings were varied. We were introduced to interesting characters in challenging situations from several different genres. Some submissions made us feel reader's sympathy while others pulled us into different, unknown worlds.

When reading and critiquing submissions, I found it challenging to go beyond my personal tastes as to whether or not I liked a piece, and dig deeper to explore what worked or didn't work to make the opening effective. Perhaps the next time we run this exercise we'll find a way to make the critiquing process more objective.

Hopefully, we've all learned more about the importance of openings and what interests readers.

Thanks to all who participated and I wish you the best with completing what you started.

Pam Hauck

Pam Hauck's wrap-up
Posted on: May 15, 2004

Thanks to everyone who participated in this week's Opening Up exercise. This is the third time we've ran this, and once again, it was a success. The level of participation was high for both submissions and critiques.

Several submissions grabbed the attention of readers with the very first sentence, held it for 300 words, and left us wanting more. Some left unanswered questions that made us want to turn the page and see what happens next. Others presented interesting characters in crisis that made us care about what happens to them. We were exposed to different cultures, various time periods, and ghosts. Some of us were exposed to genres we seldom, if ever, read.

Once again, the critiques remind me that reader's tastes and interests are varied. Most were able to go beyond personal preference and examine what worked or didn't work to make the opening effective.

Hopefully, we've learned more about writing effective openings and what interests readers.

Thanks again to all who participated and I wish you success with finishing what you started.

Pam Hauck

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.