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?