Book Review—“The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings that Sell” by Paula Munier, published by Writer’s Digest Books, 2016
The image of an open door graces the cover of Paula Munier’s latest writing book. It’s an invitation to learn and keep an open mind. It also reminds me of the proverbial door being slammed in a novelist’s face. “Competition is fierce—and that’s why your words must be fierce as well,” says Munier.
The competition for a reader’s attention starts on page one. “If the beginning doesn’t work, the rest of the story doesn’t really matter,” writes Munier, a literary agent, writer, editor, and writing teacher. Common sense, right? Yes, but writing a good opening is harder than you think. Readers today have more distractions than ever. They are conditioned by social media to judge a message, an article, a photo, but especially a book, within seconds. They can dismiss your work with one click.
First Page & Chapter
What makes a great beginning? It should grab a reader’s attention, and answer these questions: What kind of story is this? Who is telling the story? Where and when does the story take place? Which character should I care about? Why should readers care what happens next?
The last question is the most critical. “If they [readers] don’t care what happens next, they won’t read on—and you’ve lost them, possibly forever,” says Munier. “The most important thing your opening needs to do is to keep the reader reading.”
She offers practical tips on answering the questions, and gives examples of effective beginnings across genres, from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” to Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones.”
Where to Begin
You will be able to answer the abovementioned questions only if you have written the first chapter, or at least the first page. For most writers, the bigger problem is where and how to begin.
Munier offers some suggestions accompanied by examples, as well as a case study. You could start with a scene that introduces your story idea, or with a chapter that foreshadows and sets up the story idea. “The most reliable way of opening your story is with action,” writes Munier. “Readers respond to proactive characters.” In other words, skip that opening dream sequence!
To the novelist with literary aspirations, Munier says, even character-driven stories are not off the hook. Reveal your characters through their actions, especially in the first chapter. She warns against writing too much too soon—excessive back story, descriptions, and inner monologue—at the beginning of a novel.
You need all of the above, but not too much that they impede action. “You need to be a master juggler, dazzling the reader with your ability to keep all those elements in the air,” writes Munier. While action is critical, don’t forget conflict. “Conflict is the currency of drama and the driving force behind action, but action alone does not a story make,” she adds.
Tips and Tools
There are many writing books out there, but Munier’s book stands out because her teaching skills shine through. She’s a big proponent of “show, don’t tell.” In her book, she doesn’t just say, “Do this.” Through a case study, she shows the reader how to improve an opening scene. She also offers great tools for applying her tips.
You’ll find “jump-start” boxes throughout the book. They are little nuggets of wisdom in the form of exercises and tips. For example, she suggests simple activities (meditation, paying attention, etc.) to help you brainstorm ideas. If you have a problem with how your story flows, the book offers a “jump-start” list (on page 186) for breaking down the structure of your story.
You will find “bubble” charts throughout the book, a great tool you can use during moments of confusion or uncertainty while you’re writing a novel. I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of those moments.
Munier gives firsthand observations about the publishing industry, weaving them into the writing lessons she imparts. It’s insider information that won’t get you in hot water.
Are you wondering why agents or editors rejected your first chapter? You’ll find an eye-opening answer on page 27. Can’t decide whether to start your book with a prologue? Check out page 192. If you finished writing the first 100 pages of your novel—congratulations! Now you need the checklist on page 240 to bulletproof your work. No spoilers in this review, so get a copy of the book now!