Being a Better Writer: Hard and Soft Openings

This post was originally written and posted July 28th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So, a few weeks ago I talked about writing an opening chapter. It wasn’t a bad blog post, but as some pointed out, it was purely about structure and structure alone. There was nothing covering any of the other bits and pieces that went into an opening chapter.

This was, admittedly, a failure on my part. One that today I mean to rectify. So, once again I’m going to talk about openings, but this time from another perspective. I’m going to talk about the type of opening you choose to have for your work.

Now to begin, I see there being two general “classes” of openings. Bear in mind this is strictly my own viewpoint on the matter, and by no means some sort of thing you’re going to hear from another author, as they may see things completely different than I or use their own terms. But in any case, I see most introductions as the extension of one or two types: the hard opening or the soft opening.

These terms do not denote the difficulty or curve to the reader, but rather the type of scene that you choose to open your story with. If you start with a soft opening, your work will begin with a fairly ordinary day-to-day that builds up to something unusual, while a hard opening will begin right smack in the middle of things, usually with the inciting incident happening right away and a generous helping of out of the ordinary action. Note: this type of opening is separate from in medias res, which I’ll get to later.

The thing is, both of these openings are equally useful, and I’m not going to claim that one is better than the other, because they aren’t. The truth of the matter is, both openings can be of incredible value to the story.

Let’s take the case of the soft opening and look at this first. With a soft opening, you’re beginning your story in the day-to-day for your character, the average experience. We’re familiar with the archetypes of plot, of which the most basic is “character exists, something happens to change up the ordinary.” A soft opening isn’t a departure from this, but rather the where we move the focus. With a soft opening, we’re going to start with an increased amount of attention on the “character exists” part of that story, setting up our player(s) and what their daily existence is like before we jump into the “change.”

For example, Rise starts with a soft opening. While the prologue contains hints of the inciting incident (the leaders’s decision to move forward with the formation of a new division of guards), it is presented in a very ordinary, everyday format as two rulers relax at the end/beginning of their day. The soft opening continues through the next chapter, as the story follows the average day of the main character, starting with his morning run and ending with his receipt of the orders to report to the capitol—the actual inciting incident.

The key here is narrative tension and interest. Soft openings are tricky, as they don’t rely on the whiz-bang explosions of a hard opening and screaming action to suck the reader in. Instead, they lay groundwork and heighten the reader’s interest through anticipation and depth. Rise certainly doesn’t have any explosions or chase scenes in its opening chapters. Instead it relies on a few interesting elements—such as one ruler’s story about her nephew’s fear of cake—to keep the reader going until a promise of the inciting incident arrives. When it does, it’s not with a bang, but with a promise that something big is going to happen. From there, we cut to the main character’s everyday life, and the reader is carried along by three things: The differences in his life and activities compared to the reader’s own, the introduction and gradual reveal of the character, and by the eventual promise that something is coming; most likely him being tied into this new guard division somehow.

There’s no action, no explosions. Just exercise, a conversation with a mailman, some shopping, and then a package that turns everything on its head.

Let’s take a look at some other great soft openings. Here’s one from a particular favorite film of mine:Despicable Me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the whole thing, but give it a quick watch.

This intro is a perfect example of a soft opening. There is absolutely nothing blowing up (well, unless you count the balloon animal) or any great chase. Instead what we have is a demonstration of Gru’s everyday life. It’s not exactly our everyday life, though, and so we keep watching. In the complete opening, we watch as Gru not only “helps” a child who has dropped their ice-cream and gets coffee, but drives home, talks to his “employees,” and even gets a phone call from his mother. All before the inciting moment where he explains his grandiose plans. What keeps us watching is the fascination and hilarity that come from comparing our own life to Gru’s and the knowledge from the earlier sequence that something big will happen.

The soft opening is even heavily relevant to the story as a whole. Not only does it introduce us to the nature and mannerisms of Gru (which, though reinforced in later scenes, are most prominently featured here), but it also serves as a backdrop for the “normal” day, so that later on in the story, so that when Gru’s personal life begins to be completely changed by the actions he’s taken during his plan, the audience is aware of it.

Btw, the second film plays things a bit differently—although its introduction event is much more hard than soft (sort of like a hard prologue), the actual opening of the film with Gru remains fairly soft (and hilarious).

Alright, one last example for a soft opening.

Anyone here read the first Harry Potter book? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philospoher’s Stone if you’re international)? Show of hands? Oh good. Well, Sorcerer’s Stone is a great example of not one, but two back-to-back soft openings.

The first is the prologue, which starts by following the everyday, perfectly normal life of the Mr. Dursley, who is perfectly normal in every way, thank you very much. He has breakfast with his family, goes to work where he sells drills, and comes home for dinner. Which sounds like it could be boring, except for two things. First, it becomes very clear very quickly that something weird is going on, what with the owls, the people wearing robes, and the cat that just stares at him from the wall while Dursley is in his car. Oh, and then there’s the small hints that the Dursleys are in fact, terrible, horrible people for whom “normal” is synonymous with “general jerk behavior in the self-superior name of shaming others.”

Then at the end of the chapter a bunch of stuff happens, culminating in a single line that echoes through the series. Then the reader turns the page and—

A second soft opening, now over a decade later, and this time from Harry’s point of view. Wake up, do chores, have breakfast, get yelled at by the Dursleys, go about your day, etc. It’s another soft opening. Some weird stuff happens (snake, anyone?), the suspicions (and declaration) that the Dursleys are a bunch of jerks is cemented, but overall, it’s just a semi-normal day. In fact, if you’re looking for the actual inciting incident that kicks off the plot of the book, it doesn’t actually happen until halfway through the third chapter. Granted, this is unusual. But that’s how strong Harry Potter‘s soft opening is. So strong that the writer spends two and a half chapters establishing character and lore before even getting to the moments that kick the plot into overdrive (and even then, the next chapter follows the character running away from the inciting incident so that it actually doesn’t take full effect until a chapter-and-a-half later).

Now that is a well-done soft opening. It’s pretty much perfect, in fact.

Alright, now let’s discuss a hard opening.

A hard opening is the opposite of a soft opening. Where a soft opening takes time to set everything up in an ordinary manner, a hard opening dives right in, often starting with the inciting incident or even just after the inciting incident has occurred. Again, I’m not talking about in medias res where the story starts in the action and then jumps back in the narrative (we’ll discuss this next), but a story that starts right in the action.

Monster Hunter International, for example, has a hard opening. The story starts with the character explaining that he threw his boss from a fourteenth story window, and then tells you exactly how that happened via a crazy action sequence. He hints at his day to day life—the kind of thing you’d read about in a soft opening—but only in the context of “Right now I’m shooting my boss—who’s turning into a werewolf right in front of me, by the way—and everyone else here is going to be jealous.” What follows is a knock ’em out, no holds barred battle royal that trashes the building and ends with the main character victorious but hospitalized. And from there, the normalcy never shows up. He’s in physical therapy, he’s being told by a monster hunter group that they’d like to hire him, he’s in boot camp, and so on and so forth. The story starts running, rather than walking. The inciting incident (the werewolf boss) is on the opening page.

This type of intro is no less effective for the purposes of storytelling. It allows us to dump a reader right into the meat of the story, the moment when things start to happen. If you’re going to write an action thriller, this is generally the more preferred type of opening, as it grabs the reader by their retinas and refuses to let them go. As the reader you’re not sure why exactly the hero is doing battle with these people/robots/aliens/whatever, but what you do know is that someone just drove a semi-truck through a bridge railing and bailed out in mid-air by running along the trailer—all while being pursued by helicopters with guns.

A hard opening has its strengths aside from pulling your reader in right away. Where a soft opening generally explores a character and what their day is like, a hard opening presents a character in very different terms, such as how they’ll survive a plane crash. A hard opening will typically skip over an introduction of the character’s capabilities, personality, and history in return for having the reader learn it on the fly. As a result, a hard opening not only allows a writer to skip over what could be boring, everyday narrative—and this is why many modern-day stories start out with a hard opening: The reader is assumed to already know enough about what the day-to-day is like—but also in a skilled author’s hands can keep select information from the reader by playing off of those expectations of normality.

In The Icarus Hunt, for example (and I’m going to try to be as spoiler free as possible), we get a hard opening in which a tavern goer is beset upon by three thugs who he then must fight off on the opening page. No sooner has he done this and sat down then a man approaches him with a job, allowing the narrative to not only deliver the inciting incident, but feed you a few key details about the main character. Once the job offer been extended and the client left than the thugs return, and we get a chase scene through downtown.

Definitely a hard intro, but also one that plays on the reader by expecting them to fill in a few purposeful blanks with their own assumptions which—and this is about as spoiler free as I can get it—become key character points later. In a soft opening, these points would have been much harder to conceal, and the author likely would have had to resort to either lying to the reader or making them conspicuously absent, neither of which would have been good choices for the story as a whole.

Now, just because you have a hard opening doesn’t mean that the story needs to continue non-stop throughout with action. In fact, most stories with this opening don’t. They start hard but then take advantage of the lull between events in the story to then flesh out characters and establish key details for the world (like who our hero is fighting). The trick (and a weakness of this opening) is that once you start hard, you establish certain expectations. If your story starts with a strong hard opening full of action and events, but then becomes very “soft” for the next two-thirds of the book, you run the risk of losing readers that came for the action rather than the plot and character. Likewise with a soft opening; you run the risk of having too much action later and alienating the readers who came for plot and character, not battles.

For instance, I’m a bit worried at the moment that my current book, Colony, might be falling into this trap. It starts out with three opening sequences—one for each primary character—of which two are hard and the third is soft with a kick at the end. But then, after that initial 30,000 words (first 100 pages), there isn’t a shootout or a battle for another 200. It’s all just the characters being brought together, getting tied up in the plot, and putting things together. Even though the action is now ramping up with fights and battles once more, I’m worried that because of the hard opening, I might lose readers in that interim. I’ll probably end up chopping about 50-100 pages from there if I can.

Now, one last “type” of opening: The infamous in medias res (I say infamous because everyone’s always asking about it). An in medias res, for those who don’t know, is a sort of halfway point between the two narratives. While technically it’s a soft opening, a story that is done in medias res starts out with a “fake” hard opening full of action and set after the inciting incident. It pulls the reader in with that “hard” opening, then usually ends on a cliff-hanger and jumps back in the narrative to the actual, soft opening.

Basically, it’s almost a blend, a sort of combination of the two types of openings. And while it can be well used (for example, you can have parts of the narrative that don’t line up or make the reader question things as they happen), more often than not most of the time an in medias res opening is used, it’s usually because the author is going with a soft opening, but doesn’t have the experience or talent to make the soft opening interesting (or at least, doesn’t believe that they do). So they start with a “fake” hard opening to reel you in, end with a cliffhanger, and then hope that the “teaser” of what you’d just read is enough to make you want to continue on even if the book is dull or boring.

Personally, I’m not such a big fan. Unless you’re an author clever enough to take advantage of possible narrative dissonance or the fact that you’ve given away large swaths of your plot on the opening pages, generally an in medias res opening is usually used to cover for the author. Used poorly, they can ruin narrative tension (characters seen an in medias res beginning usually mean we know who’s living until that point of the plot), lead to damaged pacing (remember the hard opening and then no action after that? A lot of in medias res openings cover for this), or even just give away endings (a little to much narrative detail in an in medias res opening can give away the whole plot ten pages into the “real” opening).

Now, they can be done well. For example, Schlock Mercenary does a great one with the book The Sharp End of the Stick. By juggling multiple flashbacks, amnesia, and an in medias res opening, it paints a curious mystery that has you wondering what’s going on up until near the end of the book, all while keeping the jokes (and the action) coming at a steady clip. So an opening of this kind can be done well. Megamind did pretty well at this as well, opening with a bit of cliffhanger action before jumping all the way back to the start of the story … But that cliffhanger was so vague you had no idea what was coming other than the main character falling to his death.

Make no mistake, however, that while many young writers assume that an in medias res opening is the best way to start , they’re probably wrong. A well-done in medias res takes a lot of skill to pull off without screwing up the narrative pacing and plot of your story. Most young authors should probably stick with soft and hard openings until they understand the potential strengths and weaknesses of each before jumping into an introduction that uses both types.

So, let’s summarize. We have two types of openings. There is the soft opening, where things open before the inciting incident has occurred or taken effect. A soft opening will often establish character(s) lives before everything gets upset and present them and the world to the reader. Then there is the hard opening, which drops the reader into the scene just as or shortly after the inciting incident occurs. These openings rely on the events to carry things forward, letting the readers get to know the characters and world only after the explosions have stopped (or in some cases, as the object/world in question explodes). Lastly, we have in medias res, which isn’t a “third” type, but more of a timeline-jumped soft opening pretending to be a hard opening.

All are useful for varying reasons, and have their place in writing. When one will suit your story more than another is up to you to figure out and decide.

So, that’s all for this week. For a challenge, take a look at your own works and see what kind of openings you’ve done, and then determine which one suits your style best. If possible, write a short opening for the same story in both styles, and see which you prefer more and how the result at the end of the opening is different.

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