Thursday, March 3, 2016

Writing an opening scene is like juggling (only harder)

By Susan Gray Foster

New Clubs by jayniebell
Much has been said about opening chapters, opening pages, opening lines. And it’s no wonder. If the opening of a novel doesn’t entice the reader (whether that reader is an agent, an editor, or a member of the general public browsing through books at Barnes and Noble), they will likely read no further. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the opening needs to blow readers away with its awesomeness and leave them gasping, but it must catch readers' interest and compel them to spend hours of their lives reading the story that’s been introduced.

Although there are no hard and fast rules, generally speaking, opening chapters must introduce the reader to a main character they will care about, ground the reader in a setting, and establish conflict and tension, and the writer must do all this with an engaging voice, using a tone that is appropriate to the novel, without resorting to exposition, info dumps, or chunks of back-story.

It’s kind of like juggling: To open a novel, a writer must throw a lot of balls into the air at once and keep them there.

Openings that hook
Some writing advice suggests that openings must show the main character in their “normal world” before an inciting incident occurs. Others suggest that a novel should begin when something changes for the main character. The opening scenes of two of my favorite YA novels, ELEANOR AND PARK and ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, do both of these things at once:

Rainbow Rowell’s ELEANOR AND PARK opens with Park’s normal life; he’s on a bus, heading for high school in 1980s middle-America. Within the opening paragraphs we learn that Park tries to “keep his head down” to avoid unwanted attention from the mean-spirited “popular” teens who sit at the back of the bus. Tension and conflict occur immediately as the popular kids pester him and make ignorant, demeaning comments about Park and his Korean mother, but Park is adept at navigating the high school cliques, and at tuning them out by listening to the era’s edgy new music on his headphones.

Then change happens: Eleanor gets on the bus. We empathize with Park as he desperately avoids offering a seat to the awkward, attracts-attention-in-all-the-wrong-ways new girl, and then does it anyway, setting the story in motion.

ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, by Jennifer Niven, opens with the male protagonist, Theo, asking, “Is today a good day to die?” This opening line hits with an unexpected punch, and it hooks, compelling the reader to find out what sort of person would ask this question and why. In the next few sentences, we learn that Theo asks himself this question continually within the context of his day-to-day life as a high school student. And we discover that he is asking himself that question now, as he stands on the ledge of a tall building at his high school. We have a main character with a unique, engaging voice, we have a setting, and we have tension and conflict as Theo struggles with suicidal urges, all within a couple hundred words.

As Theo teeters on the ledge of the bell tower, we learn that his classmates refer to him as, “Theodore Freak,” and that they have become so desensitized to his strange, reckless behavior, they virtually ignore his precarious situation. This is Theo’s normal life. Information and back-story are woven seamlessly into a compelling scene taking place at present.

A few pages in, Theo discovers that he is not alone on the ledge of the tower. This will lead him to take action in a way that sets the story in motion. For Theo, something has changed.

Where to begin
When writing a first draft, trying to create a great opening scene with all the right elements, like the ones in these examples, would probably drive most writers insane and they would never get words down on paper. Everyone’s writing process is unique, but many find it works best to just start somewhere and write. Later, when the writer has a better handle on the important aspects of their novel, they can go back and rework the opening scene (usually, multiple times(!), with the help of good beta readers and critique partners.

… Or you can just throw everything in the air and try to juggle! ;)

For some other takes on openings, check out Where to Start Your Story, by #Pitch Wars mentor, Kes Trester, and How to Write a First Line that Hooks, by #Pitch Wars mentor, Stephanie Scott.

Thoughts on strong openings and how to write them? Please share in the comments below!