craft review by Laurel Holman
There are as many ways to open a novel as there are novels, and while there are some traditional rules about what to do and not to do, those rules are often broken in the hands of a master storyteller. With so many options, and with so much riding on these opening pages, deciding on the perfect opener can be intimidating and overwhelming to any writer.
One strategy I’ve found useful is to “try on” different kinds of openings, using mentor texts as templates. Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood helped me experiment with one possible opening.
In The Hazel Wood, a YA fantasy, seventeen-year-old Alice goes on a quest to find her mother which takes her into a dark world of fairytales where she must confront the mystery of her own past.
The Hazel Wood opens with a short seven paragraphs that provide just enough context and backstory to catapult us into the first scene hooked and rooting for the protagonist. In a mere 484 words, she efficiently establishes voice, introduces the dramatic problem, layers in a few key details of backstory, and builds empathy for the protagonist. How did she do it?
In this post, I’ll break down Albert’s opening and use it as a mentor text to create a template that you can use as an exploratory exercise for your own writing. Using another author’s work to provide a template for your own story, as a writing exercise, is a wonderful way to practice craft, and it can open up new ideas and perspectives for our own novels.
A Closer Look
Here’s a close look at Albert’s opening seven paragraphs.
My mother was raised on fairy tales, but I was raised on highways. My first memory is the smell of hot pavement and the sky through the sunroof, whipping by in a river of blue. My mom tells me that’s impossible — our car doesn’t have a sunroof. But I can still close my eyes and see it, so I’m holding on to it.
Using vivid imagery with sensory details (“the smell of hot pavement”), Albert gives us an important piece of backstory: the protagonist spent a lot of her childhood on the road with her mom (though we don’t yet know why). We also learn that she has an independent spirit and get a strong sense of voice when she declares that she is “holding on to” her memory of the sunroof even though her mother says is impossible. This particular bit of backstory is chosen because it begins to set the stage for the dramatic problem Albert will introduce in Paragraph Three.
Assignment for Paragraph One: Vividly bring to life a belief or memory that reveals something about your protagonist’s personality and voice. Choose a backstory detail that is relevant to the novel’s main theme or dramatic problem.
We’ve crossed the country a hundred times, in our beater car that smells like French fries and stale coffee and plasticky strawberries, from the day I fed my Tinkerbell lipstick into the slats of the heater vent. We stayed in so many places, with so many people, that I never really learned the concept of stranger danger.
In Paragraph Two, Albert adds depth to the backstory with more sensory details (the stale coffee and Tinkerbell lipstick that smells like plasticky strawberries), and she ends the paragraph with a set up of the problem that will be introduced in the next paragraph (“I never really learned the concept of stranger danger.”).
Assignment for Paragraph Two: Build on the backstory in paragraph one and use the last sentence to set up a problem.
Which is why, when I was six year sold, I got into an old blue Buick with a redheaded man I’d never met and drove with him for fourteen hours straight — plus two stops for bathroom breaks and one for pancakes — before the cops pulled us over, tipped off by a waitress who recognized my description from the radio.
We are pulled straight from the setup from the last sentence of paragraph two into the problem: The protagonist was kidnapped at six. The details she includes (breaks for the bathroom and pancakes) give us a lot of information about this particular kidnapping and the protagonist’s response. We begin to feel for this fearless six year old who is so trusting, and we begin to feel intrigued by the scenario (what kind of kidnapper stops for pancakes?). Albert is starting to foreshadow the dark string of kidnappings that will occur later in the story.
Assignment for Paragraph Three: Pay off the set up in the first two paragraphs with a dramatic problem that is relevant to the larger story and builds empathy for your protagonist. Carefully choose details that create intrigue and foreshadow what is to come.
By then I figured out that man wasn’t who he said he was: a friend of my grandmother, Althea, taking me to see her. Althea was already secluded in her big house then, and I’d never met her. She had no friends, just fans, and my mother told me that’s what the man was. A fan who wanted to use me to get to my grandma.
In this paragraph Albert provides context to help explain the problem from Paragraph Three and we learn important details that will be critical later in the story (Althea’s fans will go to extremes). Though the immediate problem has been resolved (the protagonist is back with her mother safe and sound) we begin to see that there is a larger context of danger, making this not an isolated incident. Albert is starting to establish the promise of the novel: the reader is in for a dark and dangerous ride.
Assignment for Paragraph Four: Explain and expand on the resolution to the problem from Paragraph Three, but do it in a way that demonstrates how this problem may suggest more problems to come.
After they’d determined I hadn’t been assaulted, after the redheaded man was identified as a drifter who’d stolen a car a few miles from the place we were staying in Utah, my mother decided we’d never talk about it again. She didn’t want to hear it when I told her the man was kind, that he’d told me stories and had a warm laugh that made me believe, deep in my six-year-old’s heart, he was actually my father come to claim me. She’d been shown the redheaded man in custody through a one-way mirror and swore she’d never seen him before.
Paragraph Five is all about building empathy for the protagonist. Albert isolates her (“my mother decided we’d never talk about it again”) and then delivers the heartbreaker detail: she believed the kidnapper was her father come to claim her. Albert also uses this paragraph to build on the intrigue from Paragraph Three. Who was this man, really?
Assignment for Paragraph Five: Build empathy and intrigue with well chosen details that build on the backstory you’ve established.
For a few years I’d persisted in believing he was my dad. When we left Utah after his arrest, to live for a few months in an artists’ retreat outside of Tempe, I worried he wouldn’t be able to find me again.
Albert uses Paragraph Six to begin the transition out of backstory and into the start of the novel by indicating the passage of time, and showing how the backstory problem affected the protagonist as time passed. Albert continues to build empathy for the protagonist (“I worried he wouldn’t be able to find me again”).
Assignment for Paragraph Six: Suggest the passage of time and indicate how the protagonist changed during that time, starting the transition into the first scene of the novel.
He never did. By the time I turned nine, I’d recognized my secret belief for what it was: a child’s fantasy. I folded it away like I did all the things I didn’t need — old toys, bedtime superstitions, clothes that didn’t fit. My mom and I lived like vagrants, staying with friends till our welcome wore through at the elbows, perching in precarious places, then moving on. We didn’t have the luxury of being nostalgic. We didn’t have a chance to stand still. Until the year I turned seventeen, and Althea died in the Hazel Wood.
In the final paragraph of the opening sequence, Albert deftly sets us up to be dropped into the first scene of the novel. We zoom through time (“by the time I’d turned nine,” and later “until the year I turned seventeen”) and gain a view into the protagonist’s current (pre-story) world. We see the final resolution of the backstory problem (“I’d recognized my secret belief for what it was: a child’s fantasy”), but in a way that makes it clear that the problem isn’t really resolved (“My mom and I lived like vagrants… we didn’t have the luxury of being nostalgic”). Something strange is going on (why are they living this way? We still don’t know.) And we have the feeling that it can’t continue. And finally, we are given the catalyst event (“Althea died in the Hazel Wood”) in the very last sentence, setting us up to move into the first scene of the novel already hooked and rooting for the protagonist.
Assignment for Paragraph Seven: Bring us up to the moment that everything will change for your protagonist by showing the passage of time while establishing why not changing isn’t an option. Use the last sentence to deliver or set up the catalyst event that begins your story.
Taken together, here is our template:
Paragraph One: Vividly bring to life a belief or memory that reveals something about your protagonist’s personality and voice. Choose a backstory detail that is relevant to the novel’s main theme or dramatic problem.
Paragraph Two: Build on the backstory in paragraph one and use the last sentence to deliver a detail that sets up a problem.
Paragraph Three: Pay off the set up in the first two paragraphs with a dramatic problem that is relevant to the larger story and builds empathy for your protagonist. Carefully choose details that create intrigue and foreshadow what is to come.
Paragraph Four: Explain and expand on the resolution to the problem from paragraph three, but do it in a way that demonstrates how this problem may suggest more problems to come.
Paragraph Five: Build empathy and intrigue with well chosen details that build on the backstory you’ve established.
Paragraph Six: Suggest the passage of time and indicate how the protagonist changed during that time, starting the transition into the first scene of the novel.
Paragraph Seven: Bring us up to the moment that everything will change for your protagonist by showing the passage of time while establishing why not changing isn’t an option. Use the last sentence to deliver or set up the catalyst event that begins your story.
Action: Write a new opening to your story using this seven paragraph template as your guide.
Action: Find a book whose opening you admire. Break down the opening paragraphs to create a template of your own.
Laurel Holman writes middle grade fiction. A former marketing executive in the software industry, she discovered writing while on a sabbatical and has not looked back. She is an active member of SCBWI and the facilitator of a mother/daughter discussion group for middle school girls. Laurel lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and two children, two cats, and a golden retriever.