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Novel Openings: Creating A Fantastic – or Fatal – First Impression, by Simon Higgins

Just as in duelling, when writing a fictional piece, your foundational moves drastically impact on the outcome.

The reader is hooked and stays with you – or not.

That first impression registers as a fatal opening night debacle, or a fantastic, rave-review triumph. Your audience must be engaged from the start.

First suggestion: Exploit human curiosity.  

Most readers move from looking at the cover, to studying the blurb, to then sampling the first words of the book, with that familiar, wary, astute look on their faces. They have busy lives too. ‘To invest the time in this one, or not?’  They scrutinise the tone, language, inferences of the first few lines, getting the feel of the novel’ s world and voice. ‘Am I going to like this?’

Make sure they do. From the outset, infer, provoke and draw them in. Make the first phase as intriguing as possible. People love to play detective. They pull themselves in quite naturally if the storytelling has enough of a hook, noting at intervals,  ‘Hmm… that’s got to be a hint…’ You lead them with mystery and implication deeper into the forest of your plot. Readers also love a well-written scene or chapter closing that leaves them buzzing with some final enigmatic image, question or plot revelation.

Doctor Id was my first young adult thriller with Random House Australia, Asahi Shimbun Japan, and Mondadori of Italy. Set in the 90s during the rise of the internet, it featured a cyber-stalking serial killer cunningly taking advantage of the newness, naivety and unpoliced boundaries of early online culture. Doctor Id also introduced Jade Draper, the computer-obsessed daughter of a homicide investigator, with this opening line:

Jade heard the footsteps and quickly hid the newspaper in her lap.

How many questions are implied by these twelve words? Most readers will naturally hypothesise an answer to each of them.

So be sure you make good on those little mysteries later in the unfolding tale. One must deliver. I did a lot of structural planning with Doctor Id. I was actually working as a homicide investigator in South Australia at the time I wrote it, so Jade’s harrowing adventure, perhaps understandably, came out as a very filmic, edgy crime story.

The Children’s Book Council of Australia made it a Notable Book of the Year in 1999. It was published in Italian and also serialised – with awesome Manga style artwork – in Japan, in English, to a print reading audience of millions around the Asia-Pacific region. Given my long connection with, and great interest in Asia, you can imagine how proud I felt. I went on to write two other crime thrillers, sequels but also stand-alone novels in themselves, Cybercage and The Stalking Zone, both with Random House Australia. Award winning actor and Aussies-into-Hollywood pioneer John Orcsik is the former star of the hit TV crime show Cop Shop and an accomplished director and producer. John wrote a marvellous screenplay conversion for Doctor Id. Random House Australia even brought out a collectible omnibus edition of the crime trilogy under the cover of The DreamWeb Files.

So I guess the book has obviously worked on at least a couple of levels. What writer dares hope for more?

Second suggestion: Don’t be afraid to employ dramatic devices as you open. 

If you’re especially good at action sequences, or perhaps have a knack for instantly setting up a tense, gothic or era-evocative atmosphere, then use that skill to plunge the reader straight in there. Write your first draft boldly and energetically, enjoying the ride just as the reader later will.

Another day, in ‘editing mode’, a very different headspace to ‘creating’, textual imperfections can be hunted down, edges smoothed, language polished, story shape improved, all that. But for now, just get the thing moving forward engagingly…

There’s a lot of dramatic power to be had in the tasteful use of time-shift devices. For instance, you might open with a snippet of the climax, as below, then take us back to the beginning of the main timeline. We then see events unfold that increasingly remind us of being swept towards a life-and-death finale…

The piece below, BTW, is an opening I have never actually used. If you like, try varying it and writing on from it to see if a novel results. It’s all yours.

I looked down at the gun in my hand, realizing what I’d done. Just 16 hours earlier, I could never have imagined such a moment. My day had begun normally enough…

Third and final suggestion for now: Aim for good balance.  

When you draft your opening, whichever path you take with it, make sure you include enough information for the reader to picture the scene, but alos try to keep your narration lean enough to generate a crackling pace. Striking that right balance in style between information and story momentum is an ongoing try-it-and-see learning curve.

How do we develop this skill? Nothing replaces actually attempting it, over and over. Feedback will tell you if you have succeeded and what to correct in order to do better next time.


Simon Higgins’s bio page

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