The Boneyard: Why Writing Beginnings Should Make You Feel Great

The Boneyard features the best of Daniel and Sean’s daily email chain twice a week. Yes, we broadened the definition of “best” to make this happen. 

Daniel: We talked about endings not too long ago. I just posted a blog about why I prefer writing beginnings to anything else. In your opinion, what makes a great beginning? Are you of the Elmore Leonard school that avoids talking about scenery or weather or do you prefer setting the scene to your world in a complete way? What devices do you use to suck the reader into your world?

Sean: I love a great opening. I love creating hooks that get the reader pulled into the world that I am creating. Now, there is a fine line you have to walk when creating a good opening. You want to give the reader a little taste of the world, but you don't want to overdo it and have them pull out too soon. You need to allow the reader to peer in to your world for a moment, soak it in, and then give them it full blast.

Hollywood screenwriter Kurt Whimmer is one of the best at writing an opening line. For one of his screenplays, “Exit Zero,” he starts by crashing a U.S. Space Shuttle and then cutting back. Great opening. It pulls the readers into the world and it makes them ask, “What is happening?” The second readers ask that, they are hooked and want to discover what else is going on.

The opening to “Reservoir Dogs” does a great job of that. You have a bunch of tough guys sitting around talking about music and tipping. You know that these men are up to something. You know something is going to happen because a group of guys like this just doesn't sit around and talk all the time. Something is going to happen.

I love writing an opening line that is short, sweet, and deadly. It has to be something that gets the reader's blood pumping and their minds interested.

"They came to kill Tommy after breakfast"

Boom! Why are they coming to kill Tommy? Why wait till after breakfast? Who's killing him? Now the reader has these questions going through their minds and they need to be answered.

What is your mindset on the opening?

Daniel: First of all, you now have to write the rest of that story. You can't just leave me with "They came to kill Tommy after breakfast." My mindset is a lot like yours. I want to draw people into the world I created immediately, but in a way that makes them want to stay and not be able to figure it out in 25 words.

My problem is that sometimes I get stuck on crafting a perfect opening line. In my blog post, I wrote you should take your time making your beginning great, but I think sometimes I spend waaaaaay too much time on it. I get paralyzed to the point where I can't remember how I wanted the rest of the story to turn out. I'll lose details in my mind that may have benefited the story overall.

That being said, nothing gets my creative juices flowing like writing an opening line. There's no amount of alcohol, drug, sex, or caffeine that can reproduce the high I get from really nailing a good opener. When it just flows out of you, there's no better feeling as a writer. Writing can be hard at times, so whenever you can get your creativity to a boil is a great thing. Beginnings do that for me.

Sean: I'll figure out what happens with Tommy but I will say won't see it coming!

You're not alone on getting stuck on making a perfect opening line. It can really ruin the rest of the writing process. Most of the time the opening line comes when you are not even writing. It comes when your mind is busy with something else. How happy are you when you get the opening line? Do you keep writing or do you stop and high-five yourself.

You are right; there so few winning moments in writing but when you get one it's the most amazing feeling in the world.

Daniel: It's one of those moments when you sit back in your chair, sip on your coffee or scotch, and thank your personal invisible deity for making you a writer. And you know immediately when it's great. It's probably the only moment of clarity during my whole process.

There will be lines of dialogue that I think are cool later on, and moments where my plot and character development seamlessly come together. But nothing compares to truly nailing that opener. Every time I get a feeling like, okay, I can do this. This is what I was born to do.

And then of course, you write three more pages of crap and that feeling goes away and you have to make another 10 pots of coffee. But as long as you have a solid start, it makes all that work worth it.

For posts from The Boneyard, check out our full archive.