The seed of an idea has taken root in your mind. It has germinated, it’s growing. As you mull it over, you can see the entire plant–stem, leaves, flowering buds. You’re so excited about it, you can’t wait to get your fingers on the keyboard.
The screen’s blank, the cursor is blinking, and your mind freezes. Where do you start?
Some writers want to start with their character’s backstory, others want to start with description, still others know to start with the action, but then they backtrack to show how their character got to that point.
The best place to start is with action that’s pertinent to your story, then be flexible about your opening chapter. You’re likely to change it as time goes on.
But pertinent action is just one of the things I like to see in an opener. I also like to know a little something about the character–at the very least, the first and last name. I like to bond with the MC quickly, so the author needs to provide the glue that’ll get the job done. And, I like to be grounded in the scene, given a hint of description, setting, tone. Reading about nameless, faceless people caught in the middle of doing something somewhere that I can’t picture tends to leave me frustrated–unless the author is Lisa Gardner. I forgive this thriller-master for her opening scenes. They provide the clues and intrigue that keep me turning the pages. Not all authors are as experienced at this as Lisa is.
Too often, new authors leave their readers confused–what’s going on? Where? Why? Who are these people? And the killer question: Why should I care?
Once a reader skims the back-cover blurb, she has an idea of what the story’s about. If it intrigues her, she buys the book and settles in, expecting to jump into the action that caught her attention in the first place. She wants to read the story, not the backstory. She wants to read action more than explanation, more than descriptive prose. She wants to climb under the skin of the character and live an adventure of whatever kind vicariously through the hero.
During this week, I’d like to discuss what makes up an effective opening scene. Let me just pop out that caveat now: there are exceptions to every rule, and considering the fact that I’m not presenting “rules,” you can bet there are exceptions. I’m just giving some ideas about how you can make your openers more effective and reader-friendly. So, here’s Part 1:
Let’s start with this: “action” does not necessarily mean car chases, train crashes, or fist fights, unless that’s what gets your character started on his journey toward story’s end. In his novel Rooms, Jim Rubart’s opening action was his MC staring out the window tapping an envelop against the palm of his hand. Pretty boring stuff. But what was in that envelop–an invitation–is what started the character on his journey.
And that’s what the opening action is: Whatever it is that starts your character on his story journey.
You don’t have to be an outliner to know what you want your story to be about. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got the plot in your head and a general idea of the lay-out. You know who your characters are, what they want and why, what’s going to stop them from getting what they want, and how it’s all going to be resolved–even if it’s all in hazy generalities. However, based on this alone, you can write your back-cover blurb. So do it: write your blurb, even if it might be changed a dozen times before you finish your book. Then sit down and think–what kicks off the story? What pulls your character into this adventure you want to create?
Chances are, what gets your character started on the adventure has nothing to do with where he was born, who his great-grandfather’s favorite politician was, or what his mother hated to eat while carrying him in her womb. But it’s possible that what gets your character started is having to go from Place A to Place B, though it doesn’t involve description of the scenery while on the way. In fact, chances are that you can put the character in Place B, with a line or two about how he got there, and go on. It’s also possible that your character has to meet someone to get him started on his journey, and once he meets this person, the real story begins. Let them meet.
Whatever it is that puts your character into gear, that boots him down the road, start there. If you have to backtrack to explain profusely why the character chose that particular road, then (a) you’ve either started in the wrong place and need to present this first, or (b) you’re presenting backstory/filler that won’t drive the story forward. Since the whole point of every single word you type on the page is to drive the story forward, option “b” should be unceremoniously axed from the page.
But if you’re backtracking because the information is necessary to help the reader see what is happening, then you’ve started in the wrong place. Remember, action doesn’t have to be dynamic–it just has to be compelling. If it’s nothing more than having your character tap an envelop against his hand, make sure what’s in that envelop will compel your reader to read more.
Coming Wednesday: Introducing Your Characters