Last week a writer—Diane—asked me why some current bestsellers that start with backstory or as the day is dawning can make those slower beginnings work so well? She specifically asked about The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. I posted my answer about The Fault in Our Stars last week. I think this is such a useful exploration of story beginnings that I’m taking up that same question today, this time parsing out If I Stay‘s opening.
Gayle Forman’s If I Stay opens with what looks like a no-no: the protagonist joins her family for breakfast and they discuss plans for the day. Too often such “dawning day” openings just introduce the protagonist and show her “home base” as a reference point before she leaves for adventure. A strong opening doesn’t just introduce and ground—it intrigues readers in ways that prompt further reading. Forman intrigues by triggering and stoking anticipation. Her chapter header is “7:09 a.m.”, setting up the expectation that a big thing will happen any minute. Then the first two sentences tell us some big “it” is pending. Next, the family debates whether to stay off the icy roads. By then, readers—who know they’ve chosen a book about a girl deciding to live or die after she’s the only survivor of her family’s car crash—have their metaphoric hands over their eyes, thinking, “No! Stay home!” Forman stokes anticipation even as she shows the loving family her protagonist will lose, setting up the heroine’s emotional anguish. Dawning day, yes, but that dawn is loaded.