For a couple weeks, my Master’s program was engaged in writing forums, where we post works-in-progress and give each other feedback. I got a lot of helpful feedback on a section of my fantasy novel (or novella, I’m still working on it so I’m not sure how long it will be yet), and I will share some of this advice with you at a later point. Today, I want to talk about a concept which the advisor leading the forum brought to our attention: concrete openings.
According to our advisor, “concrete openings” are when you open your work so that “the reader ‘sees’ a scene very quickly, and very clearly. So the reader ‘knows where they are.'” One of the examples he provided was from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: “1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”
As you can see, the opening of Wuthering Heights gives a the reader a feel for when this narrative begins (1801), where it takes place (somewhere scarcely populated but still with at least one house), and the atmosphere of the place (made clear by “solitary” and “troubled with”).
Of course, not all concrete openings are so direct in grounding the reader. Another example which our advisor provided is this little gem from Murphy by Samuel Beckett: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
While this quote does not directly give a time or place, it does give more round-about clues to the scene. The sun indicates a place that is sunny, and the fact that the sun has “no alternative” but to shine “on the nothing new” implies a more modern time closer to the publication (as one of my classmates pointed out) because that is when we start to see that nothing is truly new. This opening line does not give firm details about the setting but it still grounds readers in the atmosphere of the story, and thus can be considered a concrete opening.
Our advisor proposed an exercise to my forum in which we try and make the opening line to the work we submitted more “concrete.” Admittedly, I was not–and still am not–sure that making my opening line any more “concrete” than it already is would be in my novel’s best favor.
This exercise will probably be best when I finish the entire rough draft, but here’s my opening sentence: “It was mid-afternoon when they took us to meet the Queen.” As you can see, this opening sets the time in regards to time of day and establishes that this world involves some sort of monarchy. I also think that the brevity establishes a tense, no-nonsense, serious tone for the novel, but that aspect is rather subjective.
Concrete openings dip your readers into your story world immediately. Whether you’re writing fantasy/science fiction, romance, pedestrian fiction, or any other genre out there, immersing your readers in your story world quickly is very important for catching and keeping said readers’ attention. For some fiction, such as fantasy/science fiction and historical fiction, this immersion is imperative. Readers must understand and engage with the setting and atmosphere of the story from page one, or else they won’t want to bother with the rest of the book, or worse–they’ll be too confused to continue.
Now it’s your turn. Look at the opening line for your current work-in-progress. How does it compare to the concrete openings I provided above (and any others you can think of)? Does it help your readers to “see” the scene quickly? Or does it seem to stall? How can you make this opening line more “concrete?” Alternately, is there another line you’ve already written that would make for a better, more concrete opening?
When you’re done, feel free to share your thoughts on openings and your experience trying to make your opening line more concrete. Are concrete openings the best option for all stories, or are there times when non-concrete openings work better? Can you think of any works that do not begin with concrete openings? Drop a line in the comments below!