Start Simple

By Brian Kaufman

Originally posted May 2019

Back in the 70s, I played guitar in a couple metal bands. I had fun, but I wasn’t any good. These days, I’m trying to teach myself to play blues guitar again (a goal that aligns with my latest writing project). The 45-year layoff taught me two things. First, old fingers suck. Second, there’s a lot to learn about writing from playing guitar. 

Bob Denver was so much more than Gilligan.

The best guitarist I ever saw was an unlikely-looking kid (he resembled Bob Denver from the television show, Gilligan’s Island). I won’t mention his name because he still plays bars in northern Colorado. We got together a few times, decades ago, to jam.

I asked him for the secret to crafting a good guitar solo. He said, “Start simple. Play a few licks they’ve heard and expected before you launch off into your crazy stuff. If you give them something they can wrap their heads around to start with, they’ll stick with you.”

For non-musicians, a lick is a stock pattern or phrase that catches the ear.

I think That Advice Crosses over to Writing. 

  • Start simple.
  • Don’t use complicated or cluttered sentences. 
  • Don’t be abstract. 
  • Don’t be overly poetic. 
  • Save your adjective and adverb modifiers for later. 
  • Let readers get the rhythm of your prose before you yank them down your dark path. 

As an editor, I often see story openings that try to impress with complex sentence structures, only to slip back into the author’s natural voice later. A false opening voice is a death knell for a submission.

I’ve also seen instant bursts of action that require immediate backstory via a clumsy flashback.

I can understand why this sort of thing happens. We’ve all been told to hook the reader with brilliance in the first six sentences. That’s a lot of pressure. Perhaps I can mitigate some of it.

In the hierarchy of imperatives, where you start your story might be more important than how you start. Focus on character and plot. Write the way you speak to ensure your authentic voice is in play.

BUT WHAT ABOUT TERRIBLE OPENINGS THAT DON’T WORK? SHOULDN’T YOU KEEP AFTER THAT FIRST PAGE UNTIL IT IS PERFECT?

One of the drawbacks to real life is the absence of a time machine to allow you to correct mistakes after-the-fact. Novel writing comes with a built-in time machine called self-editing. You can go back and change the opening after you finish your book. 

In fact, your story’s opening may just be the last thing you should write before finishing the novel. And when you revisit that opening, my advice will still hold true. Start simple. 

Let the story unfold—you have miles of pages to go before the end.

NEED INSPIRATION? CHECK OUT THE BEST OPENING LINES IN LITERATURE.

Great Opening Lines

Because breaking the rules is the only certain rule of writing. These classic lines don’t follow any of my advice.

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