Bridge to Story

Opening with Intensity

Advice says that each of the short stories you write and novel chapters you formulate need to open with intensity. Okay, but what does that mean? Intensity?

It means there must be a great grab’em point to your beginnings.  You can grab attention by overt ways (explosions) or oblique ways (mysteries). In either case grabbing was done. You opened without a soft beginning.

A soft descriptive beginning will get a soft response.  And no, this does not necessarily mean you need Fire, Sex or Death with every first sentence you get down on paper.  BUT, a piece should not come in gently, unless you want your readers to gently place your book down on their chest and then gently fall off to sleep.

But what if you find that you will cannot go anywhere if you follow the rule ‘Stories must begin with an intense opening’, that the thought of pushing yourself to start with the best opening of all time, freezes your brain, then do this:

Annie Lamott, from her book on writing, Bird By Bird, suggests if this is a problem that you begin your story with a place marker, use a red font if it will help and try something like this:

[ I open this piece with intensity here ]

Then go on with getting the rest of the piece down on paper.  Your intense opening is acknowledged now; you can brainstorm about it later.  The marker is in place and now you’ve got a story to write.

Now, we’ll look at examples and exercise on this idea of opening with intensity.

Example Toggle

Example:

One way to guarantee an opening with spark is to think of the movies you watch. If you know the filmmaking phrase establishing shot, you know that means that the camera will start with a long, wide, or full shot at the beginning of a sequence. It establishes location, setting, and the mood of the action:

Example:

The camera begins by taking in a long shot of the gray and green hills. The camera showing a few light wispy clouds in the pale sky, then it pans to the dry ground to establish the heat of the day. And then it will slowly pan across the hills, falling on random sheep and stands of eucalyptus trees. Then the camera might meander for a while focusing on a spry kangaroo before coming to rest in a closer, tighter shot of the front door of a gray, weather-beaten farm house. The camera will pull closer still, until the sound track is overtaken by the sound of arguing voices coming from within the house. Then BAM!, the front door swings open, bouncing against the peeling clapboard of the house. A young girl of fourteen shoots from inside the house like she is shot out of a cannon. Two long strides take her right off the porch and into the dusty, dirt strewn front yard, she turns and stands, her cotton dress whipping around her knees in the breeze, a thin pale yellow sweater clenched in her fist. She confronts a frowning toothless old lady at the screen door, who shouts:

Okay- you get the picture. And if you had been watching this on the big screen (while the camera used it’s time to make its way past the hills and sky, while it cruised past sheep and kangaroos) you were probably trying to keep your jacket from slipping off the seat next to yours. You may have been trying to get your change from the popcorn and drink you bought into your wallet, while at the same time trying to get your shoes unstuck from whatever it was that had been spilled on the floor. Your head probably didn’t even rise up to look at the screen until you heard the arguing voices, or even the BAM! slam of the door.

Unluckily for authors, your readers will not be fidgeting with change, or looking for a place to drape their jackets when they pick up your work. Their eyes will be scanning sentences, looking for action, conflict, and tension.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

Remember that text from the example? Think of it as your opening for a moment and run this exercise by it.

The camera begins by taking in a long shot of the gray and green hills. The camera showing a few light wispy clouds in the pale sky, then it pans to the dry ground to establish the heat of the day. And then it will slowly pan across the hills, falling on random sheep and stands of eucalyptus trees. Then the camera might meander for a while focusing on a spry kangaroo before coming to rest in a closer, tighter shot of the front door of a gray, weather-beaten farm house. The camera will pull closer still, until the sound track is overtaken by the sound of arguing voices coming from within the house. Then BAM! the front door swings open, bouncing against the peeling clapboard of the house. A young girl of fourteen shoots from inside the house like she is shot out of a cannon. Two long strides take her right off the porch and into the dusty, dirt strewn front yard, she turns and stands, her cotton dress whipping around her knees in the breeze, a thin pale yellow sweater clenched in her fist. She confronts a frowning toothless old lady at the screen door, who shouts…

Start at the first line and as you read from there put you finger on the point where you first feel either action, conflict, or tension, where you feel any intensity at all.

How far into the piece did your finger land, five sentences, six, seven? This, where your finger rests on the page, is a better place to begin this scene if you are writing for the page. Here is where the opening intensity lies.

Now do this with your work.

After you get your pre-work notes on paper and then your notes into a draft, (adding your [opening marker] in place if needed), scan your work and see if you have a more intense opening hiding there somewhere. Trim the opening until you find it.