Chapter 4 — Writing the Opening

Character Driven 300Note: Not sure why this post didn’t send through MailChimp yesterday morning, but it should go out this morning at 8 a.m.

Also, for anyone who would like a copy NOW, I published this full book yesterday (Writing the Character-Driven Story). If you are a subscriber, you already received your copy.

You may also catch it here one chapter at a time through March 30. Or you may purchase a copy at your favorite ebook retailer for $9.99. Thanks! Now on to Chapter 4:

As I mentioned in the Definitions section of the Introduction, the opening is the introductory scene.

The sole purpose of the opening is to introduce the reader to a character with a problem in a particular setting. That’s it.

The opening is usually 300 to 500 words. So about a half-hour’s work.

The opening is important in two different ways:

First, this is the part of the story that determines whether the writer wants to keep writing, shelve the idea for another time, or just forget it altogether.

I am fortunate in that most of the time, the opening runs and I go with it. Then it becomes a short story, a novella or a novel.

Every now and then (rarely, thank goodness), something about the opening fizzles. Then I do one of two things:

  • If I really liked the idea, I toss out the opening and write another one off of the same idea. If it runs, I go with it. If it fizzles too, I toss out the opening, period. If the idea was all that good, I’ll have it again eventually.
  • If I didn’t really like the idea, I chunk it, come up with another idea, and write another opening.

Second, after the story is published, the opening is the part of the story that determines whether the reader will continue reading, shelve it for another time, or just forget it altogether. Sound familiar?

The only difference is that you, the writer, control what the reader experiences as he’s reading the opening. So make it good.

Tips for Writing the Character in the Opening

  • Use the character’s full name, including any major nickname, the first time you mention him.
    • This matters because it embeds in the reader’s mind any names he might encounter for this character later in the story.
    • For example, my character Joseph “Joey Bones” Salerno is called Joseph by his mother, Joe, Joey or Mr. Salerno by family members, acquaintances and others who know him, and Joey Bones by a select few.
    • The nickname, in every case, is used either to indicate actual or hoped-for familiarity and respect (for example, by peers in his line of business) or to indicate disdain or disrespect (for example, by law enforcement officers).
  • Often the character’s full name will be the first words of the story and part of the hook. More on that in the example under “Tips for Writing the Problem in the Opening” and in the chapter on writing the hook.
  • Give the reader a sense of the character’s physical appearance as well as what he’s wearing and doing. This will make the character more real to the reader.

Note: Despite what you might have heard from people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, it is NEVER all right to withhold a character’s name strictly to build suspense. When you withhold a character’s name and the reader finds out later you did so without a valid reason, the reader will feel cheated and alienated.

Tips for Writing the Problem in the Opening

  • The problem in the opening doesn’t have to be (and often is not) “the” big problem or conflict of the story. It’s just a problem the character has to solve in order to move into the story.
  • The problem in the opening often is implied rather than stated outright.
  • The problem in the opening (implied or otherwise) often appears in the first sentence along with the character’s name. I strongly recommend it appear at least in the first paragraph.
    • For example, “Joseph P ‘Joey Bones’ Salerno tried the door knob to his bedroom again. He frowned, then reached for the pistol under his left arm.” You can see the implied problem(s), right? The first and main implied problem for the opening is that the bedroom door is locked and that is unusual. The second implied problem (what he will find behind the door) depends on what sort of story you’re writing. It might well even be “the” big problem or conflict of the story.
  • The problem doesn’t have to be implied, of course, and it can appear alone in the opening sentence.
    • For example, “An explosion rocked the asphalt parking lot and ripped the northeast corner off the seven-story parking garage.” Or “An explosion rocked the front of the ship, tossing the crew about like kindling.” Or “An explosion shattered the front window of the Lincoln Navigator.” Nothing implied in any of those, right? Who reacts in what way to that opening sentence will inform your hook, your opening and your story.

Tips for Writing the Setting in the Opening

I will cover this topic thoroughly in Chapter 6: Writing Setting. For now, here are a few tips:

  • Any descriptions of the setting must come through the character’s perception or opinion. For example, if the opening is set in a wedding chapel in Las Vegas,
    • One character might believe the decorations, music, scents, and so on are gauche or distasteful or cold and commercial.
    • Another might find those same aspects of the chapel humorous or ironic.
    • Another might find them beautiful. If two of those characters are getting married, your problem might be couched right there.
  • Use as many of the character’s physical senses as possible in describing the setting. Most writers use only the sense of sight. That renders the setting very one dimensional. The reader who is grounded in the setting will find it much more difficult to put down your story.

When Do I Write an Opening?

The short answer is Whenever you get an idea. In fact, that’s the long answer too.

Sometimes I won’t even have a full idea (character with a problem in a setting). In fact, most of the time I have only a story starter.

Maybe a title occurs to me from something I read or heard.

Maybe a sound evokes a memory or a mood.

Maybe a character name pops into my mind.

When that happens, when I get an idea or a trigger, I sit down, put my fingers on the keyboard, and write an opening.

A Case in Point

I was doing nothing in particular one day when three words — Joey Bones Salerno — popped into my head. And the character popped in with them.

The words “Joey Bones” roll off the tongue better if they follow “Hey,” pronounced without the hard H sound. And the whole thing comes off better if there’s a bit of attitude behind the pronunciation.

I could see this guy, Joey Bones, in my mind. He was standing on a street corner in Brooklyn. (I’ve never been to Brooklyn.) His facial features, physique and clothing were as sharp as if I were standing three feet away from him.

When he spoke, his voice and his accent — even the way he clipped words and where he clipped them —were clear and crisp. The emphasis on the accent varied a bit depending on whether he was talking with peers or his boss, underlings, or those who didn’t know him. Yeah, just like he was a real person.

I could smell his cologne. I remember feeling surprised it wasn’t stronger. I knew the humidity in the air and the temperature

Those initial three words and the character “vision” that came with them spawned at least eleven short stories and one novella. The novella and probably four or five of those short stories were based on that particular character. The rest were based on the character type.

Another Case in Point

Several years ago, the name Wes Crowley came to me. I wrote a short story titled “Same Ol’ Bull, Same Ol’ Rodeo.” It was a contemporary western mixed with horror and psychological suspense.

That Wes Crowley must have been the great grandson of Western Z “Wes” Crowley, who came to me a few years later.

Beginning in late October 2014, I wrote nine novels and well over a half-million words based on Wes’ life. He also spun off seven short stories. And I suspect there’s more to come, probably about some of the other characters in those novels.

So Here’s the Whole Point

When an idea occurs, write the opening. Right Now.

If it doesn’t work, throw it out.

If the idea is good, write the opening again. (Don’t rewrite. Throw it out and write a new opening.)

If the idea is no good, come up with another character with a different problem in another setting and write another opening.

The more times you do this, the easier it becomes to turn an idea into a story.

Step One: Write the Opening.

Step Two: Keep Writing Openings.

  • Don’t worry about how it “feels.” Just write the opening.
  • Don’t worry about where it’s going or what will happen. Again, just write the opening.

This isn’t a lifelong commitment. It’s just a character with a problem in a setting.

What does the character say and do to solve or alleviate the problem? Write it.

Next up: Chapter 5 — Writing the Hook

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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