Editing openings

I've noticed on many occasions that my edits-per-paragraph are generally much higher in the opening two or three paragraphs of a story than anywhere else. I occasionally wonder whether that's because I get drawn into a story and stop paying as close attention to the words and punctuation and such, but I don't think that's true; I'm certainly capable of giving a lot of edits on later paragraphs, it just doesn't happen as often.

Partly it's that I generally want to help ease the reader into a story (unless it's the kind of story that's meant to slam the reader into a new world without any help and let them sink or swim). At the beginning of the story, the reader may have no idea what kind of story it is (though reading the pull quote may give them a hint). Helping them get oriented, by providing little signposts, can do a lot to draw them into a story. If the opening paragraph is filled with complicated sentences that require a lot of work to read, or with lots of alien words that readers won't be familiar with, or anything else that pushes the reader away rather than welcoming them in, I may suggest filing off those rough edges.

Before y'all jump on me, let me reiterate that there's definitely a place for rough edges. I don't want to make things too easy for readers; I feel that readers should (in most stories) have to do some of the work of making the story work. But I'm very aware (perhaps to the point of oversensitivity) of how easy it is for a reader to get confused, bored, or otherwise turned off by a story and stop reading it. And I think the stories we publish are compelling enough to keep that from happening for most readers (of the sort who find our stuff interesting) once they get into the story, but my theory is that it's easier to give up during the first couple paragraphs than later.

(Also, my edits are almost always just suggestions; if the author disagrees, that's their prerogative. Author gets final say.)

There are other factors, too. For whatever reason, there seem to me to often be more tense problems and confusing phrases in opening paragraphs than later in stories. And that's where an author establishes the stylistic conventions they'll be using, so if I have queries about such a convention ("Do you want thoughts in this story to be italicized?"), they'll often appear in notes on the first couple paragraphs. And those paragraphs are also often where a setting is established, and sometimes settings need clarification.

But of course, it could just be that as I keep reading, I get drawn into the story more myself and get less nitpicky.

9 Responses to “Editing openings”

  1. Mike Jasper

    Good points, Jed. I’m a HUGE fan of having a killer opening paragraph that sets the tone for the story, introducing hints of the main conflict, the main character, and the setting right away in that first paragraph.

    Thanks to advice from Greg Frost at Clarion, I’ve done this with every story I’ve written since then.

    I’ve also tried to encapsulate the entire story in that first line. Not a summary of the story, but something you can look back at after the story’s read and think, “Oh yeah, it was right there! Cool…”

    James Patrick Kelly is the master of opening paragraphs that hook you. Read his “Monsters” if you don’t agree. 🙂

  2. Jed

    Thanks for the comments, Mike. Your comments remind me indirectly that I should have noted that I don’t believe in the importance of opening hooks—I agree that “killer opening paragraphs” are great, but I think it’s important to remind writers that there are many ways to write killer opening paragraphs. I like hooks fine when they’re done well, but a lot of writing teachers seem to believe that every story must have some sort of ultra-grabby bit in the opening paragraph, preferably the opening line (at the level of “If only I hadn’t accepted that mysterious package, I would never have killed my mother, I thought as they walked me to the electric chair”), and I just don’t see the need for that.

    I do think you need to provide the reader with reasons not to put the story down and walk away—but such reasons can include things like an unusual prose style, an interesting and/or friendly narrative voice, vivid images (such as place descriptions), or even (if you’ve published good stuff before) your name on the byline.

    And, of course, the more Author Points you build up, the fewer reasons you need to provide. (It occurs to me that publications build up Editor Points that provide sort of indirect Author Points; if you as reader know you like 90% of the stories in a given publication, then even unknown authors kind of start out with automatic Author Points by association with the publication.)

  3. Dan

    Free association: one teacher of mine once recommended doing at least one proofreading/editing pass over an essay in the reverse direction. In general, the advice served me well; I know I catch more typos that way, because I’m more likely to read what’s actually on the page/screen instead of what I expect to be there.

  4. Celia

    Tim Powers was talking about the bad opening hooks–the ‘bang! bang! bang! as the bullets ripped into my flesh, I thought back to that fateful day and the blonde who asked me to take the case.” Trying to *make* the reader care before giving him reasons to care. When I work on hooks, I try not so much to *grab* the reader as seduce them into reading more–just enough information that they almost know what’s going on, but they have to keep reading to see if they’re right. Charlie (Coleman Finlay) also has strong beliefs about the importance of beginings too–I should tell him to come by here.

  5. Jed

    I seem to recall a great deal of discussion of openings in Charlie’s author topic at the Rumor Mill (definitely one of the happening places to be for this kind of discussion), but a quick glance isn’t turning it up. Still, figured it couldn’t hurt to provide a link, for anyone interested in browsing long and interesting conversations.

  6. Mike

    Yeah, just wanted to clarify that my preferred form of opening doesn’t (and probably) shouldn’t have gunshots or running or any other tricks the movies use to hook us. 🙂

    But there should be an immediate sense of mystery, I think, something to make the reader want to keep reading. That’s why “weather report” openings never really work for me.

  7. Jay Lake

    Jed, that same reader effect happens in workshops all the time. I think it’s a combination of editorial/critical fatigue and story investment. Once you’re invested in a story, the odd bits aren’t as noticeable or important. Up front, they can kill!!!!

  8. Douglas Lain

    I like the opening to reveal something about the voice of the story. I want to know right away what kind of person is going to do the telling.

    “If you really want to hear about it , the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Cooperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

    See that’s a great opening, at least I think it is.

  9. Karen

    It’s a phenomenal opening, not only because it gives us a feeling for who’s telling the story, but also because it positions us to receive the story as a whole. When that book came out it was taking the grand first-person narrative tradition and both updating it and standing it on its ear, and Salinger establishes that in the first paragraph. He calls upon the power of great lit, then stomps on it, which I think is a very exciting way to kick off a book.

    Another thing it does is to address the reader and suggest something has happened that we’ll want to hear about. But the narrator isn’t trying to push his story on us; we get the feeling he’s been asked about something he’s a little reluctant to tell — which draws us in and suggests that whatever happened must be very interesting! I’ve seen this done where it feels like a fake gimmick, but this voice is distinctive and real enough (especially at the time it was written) to be convincing.

    Also, the paragraph puts us in a space to read a story that’s going to focus closely on the narrator’s inner frame of mind. He’s saying “I am a product of my society and upbringing,” and simultaneously “…but I see myself as disconnected from it.” Which is a pretty strong way to begin a book that will speak to people both because it reflects something about society and because it deals with the isolation of the people in it.

    Sorry, that paragraph’s probably been analyzed in English 101 classes for decades, but you made me look at it afresh. Fun stuff. I’m coming late to a greater appreciation of Catcher In The Rye (was always more of a Franny and Zooey fan).


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