Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tweak the opening or re-write it?

Something's off with my opening. My critique partners gave me great notes, and I've revised and revised and revised, but still, something isn't quite right. I'm having a devil of a time figuring it out.

My main question to myself is this: should I scrap the whole opening, or tweak what I've already written?

Before I got Delete Happy, I decided to crack open the awesome craft books in my library and remind myself what an opening should include and what it should accomplish. With that information, I can then figure out if my opening is worthy of living another day.

I'll repeat some advice from my three favorite books. If you don't own these books, I highly recommend them.

In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell reminds us of three important points about beginnings:
  1. "The first task of your beginning is to hook the reader."
  2. "Use great opening lines, action, teasers, attitude, story frames, or prologues (really?) to grab the reader." 
  3. "Watch out for dull exposition at the beginning. Act first, explain later. (love that piece of advice)
In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell suggests we ask ourselves these key questions about the opening:
  • "Do I open with some part of the story engine running? Or am I spending too much time warming up?"
  • "How do my opening pages conform to Hitchcock's axiom ('A good story is life with the dull parts taken out')
  • "What is the story world I'm trying to present? What mood descriptions bring that story world to life for the reader?"
  • "What is the tone of my novel going to be? Are the descriptions consistent with that mood?"
  • "What happens in Act I that's going to compel the reader to keep reading? What danger to the Lead?"
  • "Who is the opposition to the Lead? Is he as strong, or preferably stronger, than the Lead? How do I show this?"
  • "Is there enough conflict in the setup to run through the whole book?"
Most of us have read Hooked, by Les Edgerton, which is packed with great advice about openings. In Chapter 5, under "Putting it all together in your own work," he suggests we figure out our protagonist's story-worthy problem, write a compelling scene that will reveal the surface problem and story-worthy problem, and set up the main character's goal.

No pressure, right?

Published author and blogger extraordinaire Janice Hardy helps us with openings in these great posts:

Double Jeopardy: Hooking the Reader's Brains and Heart
In the Beginning: Which Type of Opening Works Best?

There's no shortage of advice on how to create great openings. For instance, when I plugged in "openings" in the Writer's Knowledge Base, a long list of helpful posts popped up. Same thing when I plugged in "beginnings."

The tricky part for me is applying all this information to my existing work in progress. After reading through these reminders, my plan is to marinate on this information for a few days, and then decide what does or doesn't make the cut with my opening.

To tweak or re-write the opening? I still don't have a clue. But at least I have the tools to help me sort it all out.

How about you? Do you struggle with whether to tweak what you've got or ditch the whole opening and start over? How do you decide what stays and what ends up on the cutting room floor? If you've got some helpful advice, I'm all ears!

photo credit


  1. Since I just went through all of what you wrote, I have absolutely decided this: I need to write that opening the very last thing I do. My openings seem so fantastic until I've finished the book, then they suck. (Sorry, but that's word I need.) So I shred those opening lines, paragraphs or chapters until they do what I need them to--you know all of that stuff in Plot and Structure, The First Five Pages, Stein on Writing!
    Hangeth in there!

  2. You can always write a new opening, it might work. But if it doesn't work, you haven't lost the original opening - don't delete the first draft! I repeat...lol!

    Seriously, I don't know how many pages you are considering. You might try tweaking first. If it doesn't work, writing a new beginning is always an option, but keep the old draft.

    Writing a new beginning may be the only way to figure out what really works. The fact that you are thinking about it speaks volumes.

    Wishing you all the best...

  3. Gosh, I've been there. I think it's best to do what you're doing. Sit back and let your brain do the hard work. Eventually an answer will come. When I'm in that place usually it's approaching that scene in a different way, changing up what happens within in the scene or changing the tone of it. But maybe it wouldn't hurt to write a brand new chapter just for fun. Good luck!

  4. Ugh, I've had this same problem happen before. I love that you gave us lots of questions and advice to ponder in making the decision and polishing our openings. Sometimes I get awfully attached to an idea within the opening, when it might be better for the manuscript just to scrap it. Tough decisions, great post!

  5. You guys are giving me great ideas! Thanks so much.

  6. Thanks for all the fabulous resources, Julie! I suggest making it the very last thing you do, once your characters have run riot. I'm sure it will come to you soon enough :) Good luck!

  7. Oh also meant to suggest reading some of your favourite opening chapters for inspiration!

  8. The opening chapter of my new novel ended up coming much later than originally written. I'd read all the advice about jumping right in but it just didn't work. I needed to introduce the character first and get the reader invested in her before doing the wham-o life-changing event.

  9. First off, these are fantastic resources. Thank you!

    Secondly, I'm just in the process of redoing a chapter book for the third (or fourth?) time. I am keeping the various iterations on file, but the last time I simply started writing the whole thing over again. It needed it. This time (only three chapters in) I'm tweaking, but I'm fully prepared to start over if necessary. Some of my books have required several different approaches before I hit on the right one.

    I'm all for keeping the opening you have on file, but writing a new one just to see where it will take you. You may end up going with the new one, you may end up seeing ways to tweak the old one, you may decide to combine the two. Just always save what has gone before!

    All the best in the process!

  10. Boy, this makes me break out in a cold sweat. Openings are SO TRICKY. I tend to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until I'm 100% happy, but that's just me. These are great resources to guide us!

  11. I love this. And yes... prologue. I think I hooked my readers with mine. Also, the last two books I've read, the prologue hooked me.

    To re-write or tweak? It all depends how close you are. But I would tend to tweak.

    Love these resources. Thank you!

  12. I think the beginning is the hardest to set up - in books, movies, reviews, etc. You want something that introduces whatever it may be while at the same time giving a vivid description of what's to come in the book, movie, etc.

    If the beginning is too slow, one may get antsy and tell themselves, "This has to speed up soon or else!" If the beginning is too fast, it won't allow enough time to introduce and give descriptions.

    Great tips for aspiring writers! It may come to use someday for me...

  13. I love Lee's strategy of writing the opening after the story is finished. In a workshop once we had to write the scene that would happen just before our opening. That was very enlightening and made me change an opening. This is a great post.

  14. Ugh, I've struggled with this one two. My first two manuscripts I rewrote my opening scene. I think with both of them I had at least three different openings before I settled on the latest one as the best and then would tweak it based on feedback from CPs.

    My current WIP, I like my intro (my first attempt at an intro too!) but I know it needs some tweaking. So basically, I think it's just something you'll figure out. Either it just needs a little bit of work and you can tweak it, or it needs a lot more work, in which case, back to the writing board where you can write an intro you're proud of.

    Good luck!

  15. That's always a hard call but I think you're going about things the right way. Looking at what you have, studying the craft books, and "trying to re-dream the dream" will work everything out for you, I'm sure.

  16. Oh, this is great! I had what I thought was the perfect opening for my current MS, and then critters suggested I change it. I did, but then I think I changed it to much. I finally got it right by mixing what I'd originally done w/Version 2. :D

    I really like the Hooked advice. Thanks, Julie! :o) <3

  17. Not feeling good about my opening right now either, so this was perfect, Julie! I'm having prologue remorse because it's the first time I've used one and all those little voices are screaming at me to ditch it. I liked it at first and thought the way I did it worked, but now I'm not sure. Great advice to help me rethink it!

  18. First of all, thanks for sharing those great gems from those books! I've rewritten my opening a lot so I'd recommend rewriting it and then maybe taking a couple days off and seeing how that reads? Sometimes space helps me read my work more objectively.

  19. I think you're doing all the right things Julie. I had a writing instructor who used to make us move the last sentence in a short story to the first sentence, to shake things up. I was surprised by how often that made the story better. A novel is not a short story. However, you might try using another line in the first chapter as your opening hook. It might shake things up enough to show you a permanent solution. ;-)

  20. You. Guys. Are. AWESOME!! I'm loving all this great advice. I'm having plenty of Doh! moments here. Why didn't I think of that? Or that? Or THAT? Thanks so much <3

  21. Sometimes the first part is an unnecessary prologue. If it's in a significantly different style than the rest of the story, try getting rid of it.

  22. All writers go through this at one time or another. I've found it's best for me to keep going with the story and go back to it another time. In the meantime read some beginnings of stories you absolutely love for inspiration. It usually triggers an idea that may be right for your book. Good luck!