Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Opening Scene

How do I craft the perfect opening scene to hook a reader? This is the question I’ve asked myself for months, and unfortunately, I haven’t figured it out.

My first five opening scene versions have been given the thumbs down for various reasons (too scary, too creepy, not enough action, prologues are out of style, etc), so it’s back to the drawing board.

As I endeavor to write the opening scene for the sixth time, I’ve gone back to research to ensure I understand the necessary ingredients.

Pose an Indirect Question
Some say the hook is an indirect question to the reader to keep them reading in the hopes of revealing the answer.
An example from my personal favorite is Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris:
“I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.”
Right away, I’m wondering: Why would she be waiting for a vampire for years? Who is this vampire? What is she doing at the bar? What is a vampire doing at a bar?

Set the Tone
The first chapter should set the tone of the book. If it’s a romance, opening with something too comedic will confuse and potentially turn off a reader. If the story is horror, starting with something mundane will be frustrating. Give your reader insight into what they can expect for their journey. This is where I stumbled—do I want to highlight the dark edge in my story? Or do I want the romantic elements to be more prominent? Several of the first drafts were far too dark and perhaps even gory, and really didn’t convey the romance.

Introduce Characters
I like to have a general idea of who the main characters are when I start a book, and as a rule, I think most editors do too. This doesn’t mean the opening scene has to have the protagonist front and center; sometimes starting with the villain can introduce the hero or heroine in a roundabout way.

Introduce the Setting
In addition introducing the main characters, we should introduce the time and place of the story. It’s not necessary to actually state a fact (London, 1967), but we can provide details so readers can make inferences about the where and the when of the story.

Give clues about the magic in your story at the outset, otherwise your readers will be confused when it suddenly pops up.

Engage the Reader’s Interest
What makes an opening interesting enough to grab a reader? A few options might include:

  1. Start with a melodramatic situation or life-altering event.
  2. An interesting question (as mentioned before). What are vampires doing in a bar anyway?
  3. Sometimes a wonderful turn-of-phrase can entice readers to read on. One of the reasons I was reluctant to cut my original opening scene was because of the turn-of-phrase I loved:
“I saw my little doll-shell of a body lying on my kitchen floor in a crumpled heap.”
Then it’s up to us as the writer to determine which opening is most suitable for our story.

Beyond that first line, the conflict has to hook the reader to continue until the final sentence. Hint at the main conflict in the first five pages—the inner turmoil, the difficult decision that the reader can expect to unfold and be resolved.

Above all else, ensure the first ten pages are perfect. Check for grammar, punctuation and spelling and make sure there isn’t an over reliance on adverbs and adjectives—otherwise, invariably, your manuscript will end up in the dreaded slushpile.

So far, I’m three pages into my opening scene. Again. I’ve introduced my heroine and hero, I’ve begun in the middle of a fight, I’ve introduced the setting, I’ve given hint of the paranormal and magical elements and I’ve shown the inner conflict. So far, so good. I think.
Any further advice on writing the opening scene? Pitfalls to avoid? Formulas for success? Help! I obviously need it!


Helena said...

Excellent checklist of elements to consider when writing that crucial opening scene, Joanne. I've been struggling with the same concerns you have identified. I have finally dropped the "prologue" label, altho the scene remains after being revised many times! (And I'm still not sure if it does what an opening scene should!)

I didn't attend the session last year in Surrey where agents and editors "dropped the axe" on the first pages being read, to indicate where they would cease to be interested in the submission. Did you attend? Apparently it was brutal, but certainly confirmed the absolute importance of the first scene as the hook into the story. And the possible acceptance of the manuscript for publication.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Helena,
Yes, I did attend the Surrey workshop where they dropped the axe, and yes, it was brutal! Since then I've had several versions, but none have made the cut!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
I'm struggling with an opening scene (not to mention the rest of the story) as well. At the moment my opening scene only introduces my heroine. The hero doesn't arrive until later, and I'm wondering if I should change that. I started writing a different opening where they meet first thing, but then I didn't like it and dropped it, but like you I'll probably rewrite this thing a hundred times until it feels right. Thanks for the great checklist.

Helena spoke of the workshop at the Surrey conference called "SIWC Idol" where agents listened to the opening of manuscripts and put up their hands when they would have stopped reading if this had been a submission that crossed their desks. Not many of the manuscripts read got too far into the opening scene before the agents nixed them. There were various reasons; the scene felt unbelievable or phony, a device that worked well once was overused, the tone of the story didn't match the words, etc. For most of the agents, it was a gut thing. If the opening didn't interest them, they knew it wouldn't hold anyone else's attention. This was definitely the workshop from Surrey that has stayed with me the longest. I was astounded at how quickly the agents stopped reading. Those opening few sentences had better be good or it's all over.

And on that cheery note, I'll say good luck with your opening and happy writing!


Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Jana,
I'm happy to hear you struggle with the same thing but I'm a little scared to hear you say you'll write it a hundred times before it feels right! I sure hope it doesn't take that long!

Jana Richards said...

Okay Joanne, maybe not a hundred times. Some openings seem to write themselves and some are like pulling teeth. This one is of the teeth pulling variety, and I'll probably be rewriting and tweeking a few times before I'm satisfied.


Joanne Brothwell said...

Phew! I'd broken into a sweat there!

Vince said...

Hi Joanne:

You don’t have to do everything in the opening. You only have to do one thing and do it so well that the reader can’t put the book down. If you can do this, with any element that will work, you can weave all the other requirements into the story as it advances. If you try to work everything in at the same time, you will make it almost impossible to do.

”…the session last year in Surrey where agents and editors "dropped the axe" on the first pages being read, to indicate where they would cease to be interested in the submission.”

Unfortunately agents and editors don’t really always know what they are doing…but they have the power: that’s the problem.

This same thing was done at the recent Crested Butte Writers Conference but this time real first pages of best selling books were slipped into the mix and the four editors and agents missed four out of five ‘best sellers’ and the fith was caught only because one editor had read the book but even she didn’t think the opening was that well done! You should have seen how fast the hands went up on these best sellers!! They would have rejected them all.

Sometimes I think too much time is spent trying to get the perfect opening as a way of avoiding writing the rest of the book (where the real proof of the pudding will actually be found.) I know this because I have been guilty myself, that is, when I am not using 'more research' as a reason for delay. (A trouble with writers is the fact that they can be too creative in ways they shouldn’t be! : ))


Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Vince,
Great point! I have read many bestsellers where every "rule" is broken. Clearly this is a subjective business, and we have to remember that.