Thursday, September 13, 2012


A few weeks ago, just before the Republican National Convention, I happened across a fun video on the Washington Post website about setting up the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the venue for the event.

The video was about… balloons. Specifically, the 50+ nets of red, white, and blue balloons raised and nestled up in the convention hall rafters, awaiting the grand release as Mitt Romney accepted his party’s nomination.

The video is fun. I’d never thought about how to rig a balloon drop before, and I was glad I watched.

But after I marveled at the logistics, at all the extensive planning, it got me thinking about story—and where to begin.

Let’s say you’re planning to write a book about the convention. (I’m not, but that’s OK. Who doesn’t like thinking about 100,000 balloons and, as the video details, 500 pounds of confetti?) You want to hook us, your readers, with a vivid opening to entice us to keep reading. But your opening will also establish for us certain expectations we’ll be hoping are met.

From the opening sentences, we’ll be asking ourselves, what kind of story is this? What’s it about? What’s the tone? What can we learn in the opening about where this story will be heading? In other words, what does the opening ‘promise’ to deliver by the end of the book?

You could open your book with the team of workers, readying the balloon drop—the collective effort of legions of people building our anticipation to find out what actually happens during a convention. (And, depending on the tone you employ, letting us know if we are headed toward a fascinating introduction to our modern political process, or a snarky exposé.)

Or you might, instead, choose to open your book by having us ‘ride along’ with 19-year-old Jake Wagner, the youngest delegate to the convention, as he arrives in Tampa—asking us to imagine what it would be like to stand in his shoes and to anticipate what he will learn over the course of the week.

Or you could open with another impending arrival—Tropical Storm Isaac—the storm perhaps a metaphor for the stormy election to come.

Or…or… or… you could probably jump into the story from dozens of other entry points, depending on which would be most effective to make your promise to us, your readers.

As Wolf Blizter said during his coverage of the convention, as Tropical Storm Isaac appeared poised to reach hurricane strength and strike New Orleans on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, “You can’t make this kind of stuff up.”

And he’s right: whether reporting the news or writing nonfiction, you can’t make stuff up.

But luckily for us, your readers, you can judiciously choose where and how to pull us into your story.


Steve Sheinkin said...

With every book I've done, I've written at least five different beginnings, and each time I'm convinced, "This is really the one!" Seems like there should be a simpler process than trial and error, but I haven't found it...

Barbara Kerley said...

Ha ha, I know exactly what you mean, Steve!

For me, a lot of it has to do with finding the core of the story. I have to start writing in order to do that (so I need to start SOMEWHERE) but then, once that core becomes clear, I often have to go back and see if where I started makes the most sense.

Lots of looping back!

Cheryl Harness said...

Like you, Barbara, II've found that the best opening line is the one that get's you venturing down the path into the story. Once in, once you've charted out the landscape a bit, truer beginnings reveal themselves.

Barbara Kerley said...
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