I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings–and not just because I’ve been revising the opening scene in my WIP for what feels like the umpteenth time. This week, I’m participating in Miss Snark’s Secret Agent contest and several of our bloggers are participating in a similar opening scene contest at Throwing Up Words.
While I’m extremely grateful to bloggers who host contests like this (they can be an invaluable source of feedback), I’ve been wondering about the message that they send: do the first 150–or 250–words make or break a story?
I may be heading out on a limb here, but I don’t think they do.
As I’ve read through the entries (over 100 at both sites), I’ve been struck by two things: one, there are some seriously talented writers out there. Two, some of the writers still seem to be haunted by the school advice that you have to “hook” your reader immediately, and so they start by trying to cram as much of the critical conflict into the opening scene as possible.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think readers can care about the high stakes situation in your novel until they care about the main character. And we come to care about the main characters by finding something in them that we identify with–it’s hard to do that when the story opens with a chase scene (unless there’s room in that scene for the MC’s personality to emerge), since most of us don’t actually relate to that kind of experience (I hope!).
I took a sample (very non-random; my statistician parents would be horrified) of some of the novels on a nearby bookshelf and looked at their opening paragraph or two. Almost none of them started with an intense action scene. Instead, these introductions
- Establish a clear setting for the novel (and often signal the genre as well).
- Create a mood (again, this also signals the genre)
- Give us some insight into the personality of the main character.
- Hint at future tension.
Here are some examples:
Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair
My father had a face that could stop a clock. I don’t mean that he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle. Dad had been a colonel in the ChronoGuard and kept his work very quiet. So quiet, in fact, that we didn’t know he had gone rogue at all until his timekeeping buddies raided our house one morning clutching a Seize & Eradication order open-dated at both ends and demanding to know where and when he was. . . .
I wasn’t a member of the ChronoGuard. I never wanted to be. By all accounts it’s not a huge barrel of laughs, although the pay is good and the service boasts a retirement plan second to none: a one-way ticket to anywhere and anywhen you want. No, that wasn’t for me. I was what we called an “operative grade I” for SO-27, the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network based in London.
This opening gives you a distinct taste of the main character’s voice, and it gives readers a basic introduction to her world, a world in which time travel and literary crimes are common.
Louis Sachar, Holes (a Newbery Medal book)
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland. . .
The only trees are two old oaks on the eastern edge of the “lake.” A hammock is stretched between the two trees, and a log cabin stands behind that.
The campers are forbidden to lie in the hammock. It belongs to the Warden. The Warden owns the shade.
This particular opener fascinates me because it’s not until chapter two that we’re even introduced to the main character–but the opening does a fantastic job of establishing a setting, of alluding to the unnatural, menacing power of the Warden, and suggesting that something unnatural is going on here.
And finally, a childhood favorite, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time (also a Newbery)
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraith-like shadows that raced across the ground.
The house shook.
Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.
She wasn’t usually afraid of weather.–It’s not just the weather, she thought. –It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.
For the rest of the opening scene, nothing happens except Meg sits in her bed shivering, watching the storm, and thinking about everything that’s wrong with her life. The only hint we get of the action that fills the story is Meg’s uneasy sense that something isn’t right. BUT–we get detailed insight into Meg’s mind and life and start to love her.
My point, I suppose, is that we shouldn’t feel pressured to start our story off with a bang (unless that’s appropriate to our genre)–most readers, I think, have a certain degree of patience for a book they’re interested in reading–those first couple pages don’t make or break our impression.
I wonder if we might be better served to stop thinking of the opening as a hook–a sudden, violent, possibly painful thing that seizes us–and think of it more as a come-hither-look, something more subtle, suggestive, and ultimately more seductive.
If you’re going to focus on anything in those first few pages, focus on getting the voice right, in establishing a vivid setting, and creating the appropriate mood.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go fix my intro again!