writing technique

Cold Open

It is, with the possible exception of “show, don’t tell” the most commonly heard piece of advice for writers: You need a strong opening. Your first sentence is your first chance to grab your reader. If they open that door, they will enter your story and start looking around. The first paragraph is your foyer, the first page the front room.

Close that door behind them. They’re inside now.

Usually, this advice is followed up with a laundry list of “red flag” things you should never do:

• Don’t begin with waking up.
• Don’t begin with a weather report.
• Don’t begin with a character description.
• Don’t open with a character talking.
• Don’t open with a character thinking.
• You shouldn’t start with dialogue (looks old fashioned) but you should make sure there is dialogue on the very first page because otherwise your book looks boring.
• You shouldn’t start with any kind of description because readers need human emotion to connect with, not just a bunch of pretty pictures.

Googling “bad ways to start a story” brings up countless pages, and if you try to follow all of them it can be baffling. Everyone agrees it’s good to start with action, but why should anyone care what happens if they don’t know who anyone is yet? Everyone agrees, you SHOULDN’T start with backstory, but how can readers get involved with people and a situation they know nothing about? You shouldn’t begin with anything anyone has ever seen before because that’s boring and cliched, but you shouldn’t begin with anything too strange or readers will just get confused, and above all: NO PROLOGUES!

Because agents hate prologues.

I’m sure you will have noticed by now that many fine books have been written that utterly ignore these rules. Let’s skip the obvious classics (“Call Me Ishmael.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams etc…”)  and focus on more contemporary examples. Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) begins with the protagonist telling us his name. Underworld (Don Delillo) doesn’t have any dialogue until page four, and even then it’s only the random chatter of non-characters. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) begins with a prologue (did I mention how agents feel about prologues?) made up mostly of incomplete sentences and cryptic observations by a narrator we know nothing about. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) begins with pages of description as dense and as thick as the jungles of the Belgian Congo. Lovely? Intriguing? Sure. But who are these people we’re supposed to connect to? Where is the story we’re supposed to get involved with?

If these books hadn’t been written by well-known, prize-winning authors, would they have even gotten published? Or would the literary agents and editors of the world have tossed them aside mid-sentence, overwhelmed by all the red flags waving at them from page one?

Dunno. I’ll tell you, though, it would be a tough go. Literary agents tend to read with one finger on the eject button, looking for a reason to stop. One complicated sentence, one ambiguous moment, and they could very well decide your precious novel just isn’t worth the effort.

What they want, what you need, is a cold open. Anyone who watches television knows what this is. It’s that part of a show before the opening credits, before the theme music, where they jump directly into the story, give us a teaser of what is to come. (With comedies, the cold open often has nothing to do with the story of the week, but with dramas it usually does.) The cold open hasn’t always been around. Back in the olden days, shows just started with the theme music, exactly the same every time, but somewhere around 1965, television producers started getting innovative— Star Trek, The Man From Uncle, Mission Impossible—these were all early examples of television dramas that made use of the dramatic cold open. The idea, of course, was to rope the audience in before the show had even started—get the viewer involved so they wouldn’t switch away to see what else was on.

In all fairness, in the early days of television, shows didn’t really need a cold open. There just weren’t that many channels, not that many shows to choose from. If someone tuned in I Love Lucy or Gunsmoke, they probably did so as a matter of choice. They didn’t need to be roped in. Not that there wasn’t always competition between shows and networks, but the stakes were certainly lower. You had three, maybe four, options for any given time-slot. There weren’t 300 choices to scroll through at the press of a thumb.

And that, dear readers, is a pretty good analog to the situation we writers find ourselves in today. There are thousands of choices facing the book buyer these days. And unless we are a Barbara Kingsolver or a Markus Zusak with a ready and waiting audience, we are all competing to catch the attention of a dwindling audience who have been largely conditioned to abandon any source of entertainment that isn’t constantly jangling their excitation circuits. So do we start every book with a cold open, in res media, bullets flying, pedal to the metal?

I don’t know. I really don’t. It’s too easy, perhaps, to say: write what you believe in, audience be damned. Be true to your vision of what you want your work to be.

Of course. Absolutely. But—at what price? Just how user friendly do we want to be?



13 thoughts on “Cold Open

  1. mimispeike says:

    I’m telling myself a story. I feed in as much bright dialogue (more than originally, on advice from Book Country), description (less than originally, ditto), hints of where it’s going (as my intentions jell) as I think best. In all the years I’ve worked on my story, I’ve never had a roadmap, only vague goals that are tossed out the window at any time. My three books started as a short story telling the original, historical meaning (rather like ring-around-the-rosey) of Hey Diddle Diddle.

    My idea of success is simply finishing the saga. Trying to cater to the expectations of a popular audience is too much for me to handle. I start thinking like that, I’ll never get it done.

    What the rest of you should do, good luck with that. I’ve taken the easy way out, I do what works for me. When I don’t see a way forward, I discuss it with myself in the text, debate possibilities, until I come to a conclusion. Some of that may never be written out, cause it’s so much fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • atthysgage says:

      I don’t think that a sin at all. It is the fundamental thing, ‘cuz if you ain’t doing that, the rest is meaningless. But IS that all? Can we find a way to make our blood-, tear- and sweat-soaked sagas available to the percentage of readers out there who might really like them? And without compromising the writing?

      I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. mimispeike says:

    Blood-, tear- and sweat-soaked sagas – you got that right.

    … available to the percentage of readers out there who might really like them? – The best way to captivate me is to use language well. This you can see from a paragraph or two. If the writing is a serviceable bore, no kind of plot is going to please me. See there, I have the universal solution. Problem solved.

    Even pages of description, if gorgeously crafted, are a powerful hook, not a deterrent, for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I tend to be on your side, Mimi. But I’m not sure it helps us out of this bind. We could fully intend to market our books specifically to readers who love beautiful, original writing, but that still leaves the question: how? How do we find them? How do we reach them? How do we get their attention? I know they’re out there.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    Atthys, I’m going for the cat angle. Cats go viral on the web. I may well lure a bunch of looks. Whether they stay with me, that’s another thing. You? I’m thinking about magic carpets. Magic carpets sure appeal to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. GD Deckard says:

    Thanks for this wealth of good info, Atthys! This post is an excellent overview for me.
    (When it comes to openings, I’m as sophisticated as I am with art: I know what I like.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mimispeike says:

    Atthys is full of facts and figures and examples. You are too, GD. I’m the lazy one, spouting opinions. Here’s a challenge I give myself:

    Tonight at work I had time to read a good bit of a book in our workflow, being converted to a paperback. The first chapter was promising. I read pages here and there midway, then, near the end, and I didn’t care for it at all. But the cover blurbs are enthusiastic. I’ve looked it up on Goodreads, and it has almost universal high marks, four and five stars. What is it that I don’t get? I’ve grabbed a pdf and I’m going to force myself to read it fully and carefully. The book is A Good Family by Erik Fassnacht. I’ll report back.

    Interesting. On Amazon also, the reviews are top notch. Except for two or three, out of about fifty. Here’s one comment that echoes my immediate reaction perfectly: “The writing style can be characterized as capable but uninteresting, offering up few especially perceptive, lyrical, or memorable moments.” The first chapter impressed me with hints of a beguiling quirkiness that did not pan out. I have to figure out why almost every reviewer is in love with this thing.

    It may be a good story, I haven’t given that a fair chance, but the style leaves me cold. There has to be something about it to snag the author, first, a big agent, then a supportive editor at St. Martin’s Press, and recommendations from respected names. I’m going to get to the bottom of this. And, hopefully, learn something from it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    If ever I were inclined to follow rules (doubtful), I would have been dissuaded by the example of Jay on Book Country, he of all-the-answers. He had run a manuscript evaluation service!

    I read the first chapters (the look-inside on Amazon) of four or five of his books. Things happened, yes. He definitely took his own advice. But his characters were automations, to my way of thinking. In the midst of a strange situation, where you or I might have been asking, What the fuck is going on here?, there was no such normal reaction. The myriad split-second thoughts that we all have, I found none of that. I said to myself, these people aren’t human.

    Maybe that was his default approach to an opening, with later stuff presenting a more believable way of dealing with the world. But I kind of doubt it. From what I’ve seen, his characters service the plot.

    I don’t care what kind of action-alien epic you’re writing, your characters are the real story. My only rule is: I don’t tell them what to do. They tell me who they are. All else follows from that. I plot on the fly, with frequent adjustments. As, for instance, I begin to understand that my villain is just another pathetic, insecure fool.

    I giggle, and I groan, at the evil incarnate ideas. We are all damaged, maybe retain some altruism and some empathy, and beyond that, it’s mundane self-interest. This mix is what makes for a fascinating story. Bad Seed is for cartoons.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. mimispeike says:

    I have a feeling this topic is going to spark a lively debate between Sly and John Dee. Which view will Sly take? I’m not at all sure.


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