Elements of a Successful Opener

Openers, or opening chapters, are probably the most important pages of a novel that you will write. Your opener must grab your reader’s attention. Your opener must raise enough questions to keep the reader hooked. And your opener must give enough — just enough — information for the reader to go on.

It’s a fine, delicate balance. Almost like walking a tightrope. And it’s so hard to get it right.

At first glance, to rookie reader/writer eyes, an opener might seem effortless, easy, or even random. Why on earth did George Orwell choose to start 1984 by describing a clock? Why does Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 begin with a sentence about burning?

At first, I was baffled. Yet as I delved further into the books I loved, I found that these seemingly arbitrary openers are actually very skilfully crafted first scenes that contain all the right elements to catch a reader — hook, line, and sinker. Let’s take a look at these elements, and then dive into an analysis of the opening for one of my favorite YA Fantasy books: Marie Lu’s The Young Elites.

  1. Goal. The first scene of your novel must establish the Main Character’s (MC’s) goal. Without a goal, there is no story. This probably goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: Every MC needs a goal. Otherwise … well, what are you writing about? Drooling Dan and the Sleeping Snores?
  2. Motivation. Let’s say your MC has a goal: to journey around the world and slay all of the bad, bad dragons in Fantasyland. … But why? Every goal has a source — a backstory that spurred this determination in your MC. If you think about it, no real person suddenly wakes up one day and decides, “My new goal is to become the ruler of the world!” In this case, the motivation allows the reader to get a deeper glimpse into MC’s soul. What type of a person is he? Is he vengeful — does he want to slay dragons because his entire family was killed by a fire-breathing dragon when he was a child? Or is he brave and moral — taking on this task to protect the cities of Fantasyland against these man-eating beasts? You get to decide.
  3. Conflict. Great — now, your protagonist has a goal and adequate motivation, and you’re sending him on his merry way to achieve this goal. In order to have a story — a real, exciting story that will send your heart pounding and blood pulsing — we need to establish conflict. Why? you ask. Well, think about the James Bond movies. How exciting would it be if there were no bad guys, everything goes according as planned, and Bond stops the bomb from blowing up and ends up with chick of his choice? The movie would be over in 5 minutes.
  4. Stakes. This is what gets our pulse racing — the immediacy, the urgency, the stakes of the story, of each scene. Why must the protagonist achieve his/her goal? What are the consequences if he/she fails? This is what hooks the reader to your story. Is the protagonist going to die tomorrow? Is his family going to die? The stakes tell us why we must sit on our edge of our seats and follow your story, why we must stay up until the early hours of the morning reading by torchlight in our beds.
  5. Characterization. “But I have the goal, the motivation, the conflict, and the stakes!” you cry. “Isn’t that enough to get the action going?” Well, yes — yes, it is enough to get the action going. In fact, you might have written the best, most compelling action scene in the world. But without characterization, the reader isn’t going to care. Imagine — again — watching a James Bond movie. There are cars exploding in the background, the White House or Kremlin or Burj Khalifa is going up in flames, the nuclear bomb is ticking. And we have this stick figure running around, trying to save the world. Drastic, yes, but that’s how it feels when you don’t fully show us what kind of a character your protagonist is.
  6. Worldbuilding. This is always important, but especially important for fantasy books. Fantasy books hinge on their alternate worlds, on the magic and mystery and new experiences the readers uncover with your protagonist. In the first scene, you must ground your story in its world. Are we in a modern-day urban fantasy in the middle of New York City? Are we leaping around roofs of ancient Rome? Are we swinging down the stained-glass cathedral windows of Notre Dame de Paris? Show us what kind of a world your protagonist lives in, and we’ll be invested.

Great — now we have all the elements down, you can go and write your story! “But wait!” you say. “I understand, conceptually, that these are the elements of a successful opener. But … how do I fit it all in?! How do I write all this within the confines of a few pages?”

Of course, of course, it is always easier said than done. When I find myself struggling with a certain technique or storytelling aspect, I always study the execution of a book that I particularly enjoyed. These are the published authors — the ones in the big leagues, the ones who have mastered our art enough to have made it. These are the master illusionists, the ones who have woven Concept into Execution into Successful Story. They’re like ninjas — throwing out little darts left and right. You don’t even see them coming; you don’t even realize it when they’ve poisoned you and successfully lured you into the beautiful trap of their worlds, of their stories.

Let’s study how they do it. That is, after all, the main focus of this blog: To take concepts and techniques in writing and storytelling, and to show you how authors do it. I’m a YA Fantasy/Fantasy reader and writer, and I find that for me, it’s most helpful when I analyze books by authors that I’ve thoroughly loved and enjoyed. I take that enjoyment, dive back into their pages, and break apart all of their techniques to understand how they’ve managed to do it. To make me fall in love with their works.

As I mentioned, we’re going to start with Marie Lu’s The Young Elites, which does an excellent job of throwing in all six of the above elements. In case you haven’t read it, fear not — I’ll be doing several more of these types of critiques for each writing technique that I cover, so hopefully you’ve at least stumbled upon one of these books.

Without further ado, let’s dive into Lu’s world, line by line.

I’m going to die tomorrow morning.

Well, hell, if this first sentence doesn’t set up the stakes, I don’t know what will. This is such a great hook of an opener that I’m immediately hooked (for lack of a better word) to the scene. I want to know who this person is, why she’s going to die, and what she’s done to deserve this. And, because the book is longer than two pages, I assume the protagonist is — despite her statement — not going to die. And I want to find out how.

That’s what the Inquisitors tell me, anyway, when they visit my cell. … The hours run together, an endless train of nothingness, filled with different slants of light and the shiver of cold, wet stone, the pieces of my sanity, the disjointed whispers of my thoughts.

This is a neat bit of writing but also a good bit of grounding. We know she’s in a prison. So she must be a prisoner. We know the prison is unpleasant — Lu does an excellent job of creating atmosphere here, with words like “shiver”, “cold,” “wet.” We spiral into the protagonist’s fragmented consciousness: “the pieces of my sanity, the disjointed whispers of my thoughts.” Oh, and there’s that mysterious mention of the Inquisitors, which are sure to be important to the story later on. Note how she does a good job of showing, not telling.

The paragraph could easily have gone like this: “The cell I am in is cold and wet. I am going insane. Every day, the king’s royal peacekeepers, the Inquisitors, come and tell me that I am going to die.” This is exposition. It’s boring. It’s not woven well into the fabric of the story.

Show, don’t tell.

I sit straight, the way I was always taught. My shoulders don’t touch the wall. … I hum an old lullaby too, one my mother used to sing to me when I was very little. I do my best to imitate her voice, a sweet and delicate sound, but my notes come out cracked and hoarse, nothing like what I remember. I stop trying.

So much going on here. We see the protagonist is trying to cling on to the memory of some former life she had — sitting straight, not touching the wall. This gives us indication that she is still trying, despite how much her world has fallen apart, to maintain some form of her dignity, to cling on to her former life. Additionally, the fact that she was “taught” to “sit straight” gives us some clue about her background. She must have gone to school, must have been raised quite properly or strictly, for only the upperclass are taught these types of manners. Either that, or she was some kind of a soldier/warrior. We don’t know yet, but Lu is already slipping in clues to tell us about the protagonist’s background.

The next few sentences about her mother’s lullaby elicits so much sympathy from the reader. We all have mothers, and we can all empathize with the protagonist when she tries to cling on to a memory of her mother in such a dark and desolate place. It makes my heart ache. Then, Lu contrasts her mother’s “sweet and delicate sound” to the protagonist’s “cracked and hoarse” singing to show us how broken she is, and how thin the illusion is. The memory is just a memory, and now, even this memory can’t save the protagonist from her fate.

If my little sister were here, she’d murmur something reassuring and soak my hands in warm water.

I can’t stop wondering if she’s okay. She hasn’t come to see me.

Here, Lu uses the wandering thoughts of her protagonist to introduce us to one of the most important characters in the story to come: Violetta, Adelina’s loving, kind-hearted, and good little sister. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know how crucial Violetta is to Adelina, and how Adelina’s love for Violetta is ultimately her redemption.

It makes sense for a person who’s going to die the next day to reflect upon her life. Here, the insertion of this crucial bit of information feels completely natural — showing, not telling, at its best.

The paragraph introducing the protagonist’s family could have gone like this. “I had a mother who used to sing to me. And I have a little sister that I love. She is beautiful and good and smart, with thick black curls and pale skin and large black eyes as round as moons.” But this would stand out, again, as exposition, and it wouldn’t feel so well-woven into the story.

I lower my head into my hands. How did I end up like this?

But I know how, of course. It’s because I’m a murderer.

You’re probably sitting at the edge of your seat now, gripping the book. “What?!” you cry. “She’s a murderer? But how? Why? What did she do?”

The author is probably sitting back in her chair, smiling at your reaction. She wanted this; she expected this. She painted us a picture of the protagonist, gave us her point of view, made us sympathize with her — her mother’s singing, her memory of her sister — and then tells us she’s a murderer. At this point, we’re already completely empathetic to what the protagonist is going through. To find out she’s committed a murder … well, we’re expecting a much more complicated story, because we’re convinced the protagonist has to be the one we root for and therefore must be good in some shape or form.

The story progresses into a flashback. As an aside, here’s my caveat about flashbacks: Typically, it’s a no-no to start off your book with a flashback. Why? Because we need to understand the present and be grounded in the action that’s taking place in the now. Backstory might be crucial to your story, and while we need to understand it, we need to start in the present, where the action is taking place.

Here, Lu has done just that. She’s started off with the action. She’s introduced the stakes. She’s introduced a goal — obviously, the protagonist wants to live. She’s done some brilliant strokes of characterization to elicit sympathy and empathy from the reader.

Now she’s delving into backstory, to explain how this all came to be, and to set up all of the elements that will be crucial to her story going forward. Let’s continue.

We go immediately to a scene of a stormy night — representing turbulence, creating an intense and dramatic atmosphere.

But even the storm couldn’t drown out the conversation from downstairs. My father and his guest were talking about me, of course. My father’s late-night conversations were always about me.

Here, we are introduced to another crucial character to Adelina’s story: her father. While he is never present (spoiler: already dead) by the time the story/present action starts, he has such an important effect on her childhood and mentality — and we will see why. Arguably, Adelina’s personality is shaped by how her father — and society — treats her.

I was the talk of my family’s eastern Dalia district. Adelina Amouteru? they all said. Oh, she’s one of those who survived the fever of a decade ago. Poor thing. Her father will have a hard time marrying her off.

So many important revelations here. First, we are introduced to the concept of “the fever,” which will have a key role in the world and the story to come. This is a good bit of worldbuilding — Lu doesn’t explicitly bring it up out of nowhere; instead, she subtly slips it into the narrative.

Next, we learn why Adelina’s father always talks about her: he’ll have a hard time marrying her off. This gives us several more key revelations. This story is probably set in a non-modern society, where marriage was still the most important aspect of a young woman’s life. Society affirms this: because Adelina can’t be married off, they pity her. Poor thing.

And now, we understand the difficulty she represents to her father. But what is her father’s attitude towards this? Is he a loving, caring father who shields her beneath his wing? Or is he cruel and reviled by whatever happened to Adelina during the fever? We’re about to find out.

No one meant because I wasn’t beautiful. I’m not being arrogant, only honest. My nursemaid once told me that any man who’d ever laid eyes on my late mother was now waiting curiously to see how her two daughters would blossom into women. My younger sister, Violetta, was only fourteen and already the budding image of perfection. Unlike me, Violetta had inherited our mother’s rosy temperament and innocent charm. She’d kiss my cheeks and laugh and twirl and dream. When we were very small, we’d sit together in the garden and she would braid periwinkles into my hair. I would sing to her. She would make up games.

We loved each other, once.

Lu introduces two more critical concepts. The concept of beauty, which is important to Adelina for a reason we will see later on. And the concept of jealousy. We begin to see the multifaceted, complex relationship that Adelina has with her sister. “Unlike me … Violetta was … already the budding image of perfection. Unlike me, Violetta had inherited our mother’s rosy temperament and innocent charm.” The repetition of the bolded phrase is no coincidence. Violetta is beautiful, and she is innocent and charming. And these are all traits that Adelina does not have.

We begin to see jealousy and a small bud of hatred that she might feel towards her sister. Yet Lu also paints an idyllic portrait of how the sisters used to be, of the innocence and love in their relationship long ago.

My father would bring Violetta jewels and watch her clap her hands in delight as he strung them around her neck. He would buy her exquisite dresses that arrived in port form the farthest ends of the world. He would tell her stories and kiss her good night. He would remind her how beautiful she was, how far she would raise our family’s standing with a good marriage, how she could attract princes and kings if she desired. … What a caring father, everyone thought.

Of course, Violetta didn’t escape all of my father’s cruelty. He purposely bought her dresses that were tight and painful. He enjoyed seeing her feet bleed from the hard, jeweled shoes he encouraged her to wear.

Still. He loved her, in his own way. It’s different, you see, because she was his investment.

More insights into the complex relationship Adelina has with her sister. Violetta is good and kind and innocent, and she hasn’t done anything wrong. But because she is so perfect and in their father’s good graces, it elicits such jealousy from Adelina. We, the readers, understand. We’ve all been jealous of others before.

This paragraph further goes to show the type of a person her father is. He dotes, because Violetta is “his investment.” Yet he is also cruel. So — we have an idea that he’s probably not the type of loving father who stands resolutely behind his marred daughter when the rest of the world reviles her.

Let’s see.

I was another story. Unlike my sister, blessed with shining black hair to complement her dark eyes and rich olive skin, I am flawed. And by flawed, I mean this: When I was four years old, the blood fever reached its peak and everyone in Kenettra barred their homes in a state of panic. No use. My mother, sister, and I all came down with the fever. … I still remember the smell of sickness in our house, the burn of brandy on my lips. My left eye became so swollen that a doctor had to remove it. He did it with a red-hot knife and a pair of burning tongs.

So, yes. You could say I am flawed.

Marked. A malfetto.

Another powerful paragraph. Here, we learn about the blood fever, and what it has done to Adelina. We reach so many revelations, and so many of the concepts that were formerly introduced — beauty, jealousy, her perfect sister, her self-pity — are tied together in one neat bow. The blood fever made her scarred forever. She is missing one eye. How devastating is that?

Lu portrays this pivotal moment in Adelina’s life with cruel, effective imagery: “He did it with a red-hot knife and a pair of burning tongs.” Just thinking of that makes me cringe. The abruptness of the sentence, the stark way in which she states this, really jars the reader’s mind, and we’re left with such a powerful image of how Adelina’s life began to unravel.

Finally, one of the most important concepts of the series is introduced: malfettos. These are the marked ones, the children that were scarred by the blood fever in some shape or form. Society reviles them. And this is the story of how a malfetto was hated by the world and, in turn, hated the world back; of how she gains redemption. A crucial bit of worldbuilding here.

I opened the door a little wider, crept out into the hall, and sat, knees to my chin, along the stairs. My favorite spot. Sometimes I’d pretend I was a queen, and that I stood here on a palace balcony looking down at my groveling subjects. … As always, I made sure my hair covered my scar. My hand rested awkwardly on the staircase. My father had broken my fourth finger, and it never healed straight. Even now, I could not curl it properly around the railing.

More characterization here. We see Adelina develop as a multifaceted character: she is abused, scarred, and self-loathing, yet there is also that secret part of her that wants more. “Sometimes I’d pretend I was a queen, and that I stood here on a palace balcony looking down at my groveling subjects.” The key word here is “groveling” — the word has negative connotations and gives us an idea of what kind of a queen Adelina would be.

This sentence is also key to the rest of the story — an excellent bit of foreshadowing. We see her deepest, darkest desires, and as we follow Adelina’s journey throughout the series, we see how this childhood desire shapes her actions and her destiny.

Adelina’s scars — or markings — also have a profound, daily effect on her. Out of habit, even with nobody watching her, she covers her markings with her hair. This evokes a sense of pity from us, the readers, and — even better — sympathy. I know that if my eye were missing, I’d make sure nobody could ever see it.

Finally, the information on her broken finger serves to reinforce her father’s cruelty, and to evoke more sympathy from the reader. We see how much of a broken, crippled creature this girl is, and we feel for her. Her father hates her and abuses her. Society reviles her. She loathes herself. We understand her, despite the fact that she’s claimed she’s a murderer. The sympathy that’s built here is the crucial foundation for readers to follow Adelina through her journey in which she commits the darkest deeds and is, for all purposes and intentions, a storybook villain. But we get where she’s coming from, because the author has built her in such a complex and fascinating way.

I closed my eye. My world swam in darkness–I imagined the man’s face against my own, his hand on my waist, his sickening smile. Not even a wife. A mistress. The thought made me shrink from the stairs. Through a haze of numbness, I watched my father shake hands and clink wineglasses with the man. … He looked relieved of a great burden.

I don’t know about you, but by now, I’m feeling so, so sorry for Adelina. She’s a malfetto, she’s missing one eye, she’s broken and crippled in every way, and now her father has just sold her off as a mistress to a man twice or thrice her age. This is motivation; these are the stakes. If she doesn’t act now, she’ll spend a lifetime as a mistress to an old man. Lu has masterfully tied together the character’s motivations, goals, conflict, and backstory in the span of several pages.

If I were in Adelina’s shoes, the current stakes would be enough to drive me to do something.

And she does. Adelina runs.

Tonight. Tonight was the night.

I hurried to my bed, bent down, and dragged out a sack I’d made with a bedsheet. Inside it were fine silverware, forks and knives, candelabras, engraved plates, anything I could sell for food and shelter. That’s another thing to love about me. I steal. I’d been stealing from around our house for months, stashing things under my bed in preparation for the day when I couldn’t stand to live with my father any longer. It wasn’t much, but I calculated that if I sold all of it to the right dealers, I might end up with a few gold talents. Enough to get by, at least, for several months.

As we follow the narrative of the story, we see so much more characterization. Adelina is developing into a wonderfully multifaceted, complex protagonist. She’s wretched, pitiful, and broken, yet she is not helpless. In the above paragraph, we see her thought process, right down to the precise calculation of how much money she can get for the things she’s stolen. She is clever, and cunning, and smart.

All of this setup has established Adelina’s goal thus far: to run away from her cruel father in order to escape a life as a mistress. Her motivation? All of the underlying fears, self-hatred, pity, and societal pressure. The stakes? If she doesn’t run away, she’ll be sold off to an old man as a lifelong mistress. There is so much characterization going on, reflected in the action and the choices she makes. Adelina is developing into a wonderfully complex and multifaceted protagonist: she is a victim and a result of unfortunate circumstances and societal abuse, yet she is not helpless; she has all these conflicting feelings as a result of her upbringing and circumstance, yet she also has hidden desires and a darker, cunning side that we can already see. And, of course, there is worldbuilding: we see what kind of a society she lives in, we see that her world has candelabras and they travel by horse (in a scene not shown in this analysis).

Now, we get to the conflict.

Then I heard it. The sound of galloping hooves behind me. … And before I could think anything else, I saw him, a sight that sent terror rushing through my blood–my father, his eyes flashing, materializing through the fog of a wet midnight. In all my years, I’d never before seen such anger on his face.

Adelina and her father struggle and he threatens to kill her …

But then I felt his hand close around a fistful of my hair. I shrieked, my hands grasping at the empty air. … I gritted my teeth and stared back. “I hate you,” I whispered.

My father struck me viciously across the face. … “You’re going in the morning, and so help me, I’ll kill you before you can ruin this deal.”

… and then, in a manifestation of her hidden powers, she accidentally kills him.

Something snapped inside me. My lips curled into a snarl.

A rush of energy, a gathering of blinding light and darkest wind. Suddenly I could see everything–my father motionless before me, his snarling hair a hairsbreadth away from my own, our surroundings illuminated by moonlight so brilliant that it washed the world of color, turning everything black and white. …

… My father screamed, swatting desperately at [the phantoms’] bony, outstretched fingers, and then he turned around and ran. Blindly. He smashed into his horse and fell backward into the mud. The horse shrieked, the whites of its eyes rolling. It reared on its mighty legs, pawing for an instant at the air–

And then down came its hooves. Onto my father’s chest.

My father’s screams cut off abruptly. His body convulsed.

So there you have it. Goal, motivation, conflict, stakes, characterization, and worldbuilding. All neatly packaged in this amazingly-written first chapter from Marie Lu’s The Young Elites.

I hope this analysis helps illustrate how the six elements of a successful opener are successfully woven into the narrative of a story.

Questions? Comments? Let me know!

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