Monday, 12 August 2013

10 Minute Writing School : The Opening

Hello! Welcome to the first in a series of creative writing articles called the '10 Minute Writing School'. (I stole the name from filmmaker Robert Rodriguez' '10 Minute Film School' videos - sssh! don't tell him when you see him).

Each article is meant to be a quick 10(ish) minutes of hints and tips on creative writing. I'm not the highest authority on writing and there are many great books on How To Write at your local library or bookshop (or global internet-based book giant). But these are some tips that I think would be fun to share in quick, take-away bites. They may help if you're planning on entering the world's most awesome short story competition, too.

Right, enough ramble. Let's get to work.

Now when it comes to openings, there is a golden rule which you must always remember:
Grab your reader's interest and do it quickly!

There are two main ways to do this - CONTENT (what happens) or STYLE (how you write). Grab them with Content - great. Grab them with Style - brilliant (but hard). Grab them with both...awesome!

Let's talk about Content first.

One minute, the teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone.



No "poof." No flash of light. No explosion.

For a moment, Sam Temple thought he had imagined it, the teacher disappearing. For a moment, he thought he'd slipped into a daydream.

Sam turned to Mary Terrafino, who sat just to his left. "You saw that, right?"

"GONE" by Michael Grant

Arthur Ness ran.

He ran so fast that his chest was bursting, his head was pounding and his legs were burning up from the inside. ‘You’d best stop running right now!’ his legs were threatening him, ‘Or we’ll never work for you again!’

But Arthur Ness did not stop running. One of the witch’s spells blasted right past his head, its bright, white light flashing in his eyes as it exploded against a nearby wall.

Arthur Ness ran faster.


There. Two openings to two different stories. They're both quite different. In "Gone", you have something very quiet and ordinary (kids sat in class - probably daydreaming!) and something very much out of the ordinary happens - the teacher disappears. It's very big and out of the ordinary... but it's written about in a very simple way. That's what makes it so jarring - you're like Sam, the character. You're like ... "whu... did... did that really just happen?"

In the opening of "Arthur Ness", it's the opposite. You're thrown straight into big, loud action. People running, witches blasting spells at peoples' heads. Frantic! Crazy!

Though different, both openings have one important thing in common - something is Happening. Notice I put Happening - with a capital 'H'. You have happening (small 'h') and Happening (big 'H'). In stories, things don't just happen. They Happen. To see the difference, read these two extracts...

A man gets out of bed. He puts on some clothes and leaves the house. He heads to the corner shop where he buys a newspaper. He thanks the shopkeeper and goes home. The end.

A man gets out of bed. He puts on some clothes and leaves the house. He heads to the corner shop where he finds a robber pointing a gun at the shopkeeper, demanding all the money. The man grabs a newspaper and hits the robber over the head with it. The robber is knocked out. Out of gratitude, the shopkeeper gives the man the newspaper for free. The man thanks the shopkeeper and goes home. The end.

One of these is a story because stuff Happens. The other is just a list of things someone did - because stuff just happens. I think you can easily see which is which.

In a story, something has to Happen - preferably something that would not normally occur in real life. And that is doubly true for your opening. If something Happens at the start of your story, you've got a very good chance of hooking your reader (your ultimate aim, remember..!)

Does 'Happening' have to be something supernatural as in our two examples? No, of course not.
It could be something regular and plain (like Erin getting her exam results through the post). But it has to set up something out of the ordinary (Erin failed the exams and so is going to have to go to the college she really wanted to avoid).

Whatever you do, don't forget the golden rule; get them hooked and do it fast!

We'll briefly touch on STYLE - I say briefly because this is something a lot more complex and difficult. You should put as much time and effort into your Style as possible and there are lots of really good books at your local bookshop that will give you hints and tips on how to write in a way that captures your reader's imagination. But I won't go into it too much here because it's a very tricky thing to try and teach (and I don't have the time and space here to even begin to do it justice!).

But, just to give you a taste of what I'm talking about, read these two extracts;

The sun was rising into the sky. Jodie felt the warmth on her face and smiled.

The sun was blinding. Blinding and hot. As it crawled up into the red, morning sky, it reached out and grabbed Jodie. All that light and warmth - right onto her skin. She lifted her face up and closed her eyes. It was the best feeling in the world.

They both describe the same event but the second one tries to use more style to really make the reader feel what is happening rather than just read it. I say 'tries' to use more style because, like many things in writing, it's completely subjective - that means different people will see it in different ways. Some people like lots of description so would prefer the second one. Other people, though, might prefer it when a description is very brief because it allows them to imagine more themselves - so they might prefer the first one.

I think you can start to see how the topic of Style is so difficult. But don't worry - the good thing about Style is that you already have your own! The more you write, the more you'll discover it. It's a bit like sharpening a pencil - do it a bit and you have a pencil that's sharp-ish. Do it a lot and you have a pencil that's super-sharp and ready for action..!

Anyway, I think I'll stop there. Don't forget;
Grab your reader's attention - and do it fast!

Don't give them the chance to put your story down. Most importantly, though, have fun when writing. If you have real fun when you write, your reader will have real fun when they read it.

Do you have any questions about any of this? Just ask them below and I'll make sure I answer them for you.

I look forward to chatting with you!


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