Friday, May 01, 2020

opening pages-set the scene or dive right in

Hi Janet,
If we're supposed to be doing things normal, then I'm picture-perfect right now. It's approaching 1 a.m., the sand timer is about half-way drained (or is it half full?), and I'm editing the opening chapter of my WIP because I've only fixed it a dozen times so far.

Which segues into my question, and you are the perfect person to answer because who sees more first chapters than a good agent? (Answer: Nobody.)

I read and hear lots of conflicting advice about all aspects of writing, but perhaps none more than a particular piece of advice about first chapters.

One school of thought says this: Ground the reader in your protagonist's ordinary world. Then, get your reader to care about your protagonist. Because if they don't care about your protagonist, then they won't care when some inciting incident occurs to upset their ordinary world. After your reader is grounded in the ordinary world, they've met and liked your protagonist ... THEN the inciting incident occurs that obliterates the ordinary world and your protagonist is given a challenge that they will either accept or refuse.

A second school of thought says: Open with action. Pull the reader in immediately. Why wait until Page 3 to deliver an inciting incident when you can do it in the first page, first paragraph, first sentence? Hit them over the head from the first word and don't let up until they can't put the book down anymore because they're invested in your character.

For me, it doesn't feel like you can do both. You either jump right in or you paint the picture of an ordinary world that will soon be shattered.

You see chapter 1's and page 1's ALL THE TIME. Which version do you prefer based on the knowledge of which version editors and publishers prefer?

Thank you, as always, for your wisdom. I'm still recovering from previous fin slaps, so if this question is too obvious, I'm asking for a friend ... who doesn't swim.

The answer is of course: it depends.

And what do you call grounding?

Take a look at this:
When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean's kitchen smelled like a fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.
or this
One lonesome winter, many years ago, I went hunting in the mountains with Gene Kavanaugh, a grandmaster hitman emeritus. Sinister constellations blazed over our camp on the edge of a plateau scaled with ice. The stars are always cold and jagged as smashed glass in the winter in Alaska. Thin air seared my lungs if I inhaled too deeply. Nearby a herd of caribou rested under the mist of its collected breath.

We weren't there for them.

or this
The last camel collapsed at noon.

It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.

They climbed the leeward side of a small hill, man and camel planting big clumsy feet in the inconstant sand, and at the top they stopped. They looked ahead, seeing nothing but another hillock to climb, and after that a thousand more, and it was as if the camel despaired at the thought. Its forelegs folded, then its rear went down and it couched on top of the hill like a monument, staring across the empty desert with the indifference of the dying.

The man hauled on its nose rope. Its head came forward and its neck stretched out, but it would not get up. The man went behind and kicked its hindquarters as hard as he could, three or four times. Finally he took out a razor-sharp curved Bedouin knife with a narrow point and stabbed the camel's rump. Blood flowed from the wound but the camel did not even look around.

The first, from Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, is pure background or grounding. The fathers don't figure in the story after the first section. But it gives us a sense of where these boys came from, and that's the blood of the novel.

In the second example from Blood Mountain by Laird Barron we know a lot about the main character from the start. Background yes, but also very very quickly the start of the story ("we weren't there for them.")

In the third example, The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett, we don't know anything about background or the character, or what's going on other than what's on the page. But that's enough to hold our interest.

Which is what you want: engage and hold their interest. If it's background (Mystic River) or start of the story (Black Mountain), great, use that.

But if you can, you write something so utterly compelling that I don't stop to wonder about anything. I just keep turning pages (Key to Rebecca.)

It's a whole lot harder than it sounds, of course.

It's one of the reasons you want to read widely: see what the other guys are doing, and assessing if it works (or not!) and more important, is it a technique you can utilize in your story.

If you haven't read Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, maybe this will persuade you:
Doug MacRay stood inside the rear door of the bank, breathing deeply through his mask. Yawning, that was a good sign. Getting oxygen. He was trying to get amped up. Breaking in overnight had left them with plenty of downtime to sit and eat their sandwiches and goof on each other and get comfortable, and that wasn't good for the job. Dough had lost his buzz--the action, fear, and momentum that was the cocktail of banditry. Get in, get the money, get out. His father talking, but fuck it, on this subject the old crook was right. Doug was ready for this thing to fall.
You know something about Doug MacRay, and you get a solid hint of what's about to unfold.

In other words, the answer to your question is do what works best for your story.
Which may mean writing and rewriting, and starting over.
Who am I kidding, may?
Of course it means writing and rewriting and starting over.

That's not failure.
That's process.

And be very careful about anyone who tells you there's one right way to start a book. Either they haven't read enough to understand they're wrong, or they're so intent on being right they ignore when things don't work.

Trust your own artistic vision and voice. If something isn't working, change it.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yes, a lot of this is learning to trust your vision. I find the middle bit of the book the tricky bit. You can start with a bang and then lose pacing as you move forward. Because I think it is our natural inclination to focus on the first chapter and then maybe the last. At least, that was my hurdle. I could land the ending, start with the flare I liked (some did not - that is just the way the cookie crumbles) but the middle was somewhat neglected the first several drafts.

Anyhow, keep going. You'll get it.

CynthiaMc said...

My favorite opening ever is John D. Mac Donald's Darker Than Amber - "We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge."

nightsmusic said...

I agree with EM that the middle of the book is where things often fall apart for me. You can write a killer first line, or first paragraph, but if you can't keep the momentum going, it's all for naught. I think sometimes, when someone gets a full requested, that's probably where the problems lay. Also, write the opening that speaks to you. I rewrote the opening to my Regency Werewolf romance half a dozen times based on information from different agents and beta readers and I finally set the whole story aside. I know it's good. I know the sequel is good. But I got tired of the conflicting 'suggestions' on how to start it and lost interest. And now, no one wants that.

So write the best opening you can, make sure your story holds up all the way through and query far and wide. If it's meant to be, there will be an agent out there who sees it and loves it.

Kitty said...

Nora Ephron’s 1983 book “Heartburn” was a bestseller. I’m sure lots of people in journalism bought the book because Nora was a popular journalist and essayist who had interviewed many famous people. I’m sure lots of people in DC bought the book because the book was a veiled account of her marriage to the popular Carl “Watergate” Bernstein who was having a torrid affair with their mutual friend, married British journalist Margaret Jay. But I didn’t know any of that at the time. My introduction to Nora Ephron was reading the first page of “Heartburn.” I felt like Nora was telling me her story in person. I learned a lot about writing from reading her book.

The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. “The most unfair thing about this whole business,” I said, “is that I can’t even date.” Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper it doesn’t sound funny. But what made it funny (trust me) is the word “date,” which when you say it out loud at the end of a sentence has a wonderful teenage quality, and since I am not a teenager (okay, I’m thirty-eight), and since the reason I was hardly in a position to date on first learning that my second husband had taken a lover was that I was seven months pregnant, I got a laugh on it, though for all I know my group was only laughing because they were trying to cheer me up.

S.P. Bowers said...

This is the exact problem I've been grappling with all week. I've been reading the first pages of my favorite books and trying to find a direction to go. I trust the crits that all told me the same thing, but how I've tried to fix it isn't working. I need a middle ground.

Katja said...

I have the impression that when you're unpublished and seek an agent, it's better to dive right in and start with action and a killer sentence.
And when you're writing your next book, you can begin slower with more worl building first.

I don't know why I have this impression. I could be completely wrong, cause yeah, I absolutely belong to those people who haven't read enough, so what do I know.

I've only been to a day-course by a terrific Canadian author and she was very enthusiastic about my opening back then, whereas she seemed slightly calmer about the other one that was read out loud and was all about world building. She knew we all wanted literary agents... so that's maybe where I have this from. I dunno.

Steve Forti said...

I've been debating this lately, too. I prefer to start right in the action, but have been advised that while drawn into the plot, some readers don't care enough about the characters at the beginning to be invested enough in any peril. So I've thought about some of my favorite openings, and what they accomplish.

I love the tone and theme setting in the two page prologue of Greg Iles' "Natchez Burning".
I love the attitude established in the opening paragraph of Steve Ulfelder's "Purgatory Chasm".
But the one I think of most when starting a new piece is actually Andrew Grant's "Even". As much as that later testicle removal scene will haunt me for the rest of my days, the bit that stuck with me the most is the opening lines. Right to the point, no set up. "When I saw the body, my first thought was to just keep on walking. This one had nothing to do with me. There was no logical reason to get involved." I already know something about the narrator, and am already intrigued, and know there's action and mystery here.

My favorite pieces of mine always start like this, with the opening line already at the action. Trying to find the right balance in my WIP, though. The first scene has to end with the instigating bang for me, but I'm trying to get the rest of the scene to get you into the space where that bang will hit you with the same emotional impact as the main character. Ain't easy.

Timothy Lowe said...

I think the opening has to start with something unusual. Even in the first example above (background), I am immediately intrigued by the unusual situation -- the "stench of warm chocolate" is so surprising the rest of the paragraph works. I assume, not having read the book, that the chocolate business is a central pillar of the work.

They also, through key details, reveal a central source of tension. The tension in the first example seems to be the narrator's reaction to the smell of chocolate, which I assume becomes a metaphor for the narrator's feelings toward the family business (again, I haven't read it).

The others reveal some impending action -- the hunters under an Alaskan sky (not hunting animals), the bank in the process of being robbed, etc.

For me, the first one would be the trickiest, since I have no action yet to pull me in. I would undoubtedly keep reading because it's so well-written, and I would hope there would be some more palpable conflict within the first few pages.

I think some of this depends on genre too. A hard-boiled crime thriller like Elmore Leonard's Freaky Deaky needs immediate tension and at least a hint of impending violence:

"Chris Mankowski's last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb."

Leonard goes on to show Mankowski's status quo in the following few pages, while he's trying to deal with the bomb. The situation also goes on to propel the narrative (it's the inciting incident).

I think it's possible to do both, just not easy.

Best of luck, OP! Openings are tough, for sure.

Colin Smith said...

Perhaps a useful tip to bear in mind is that the conflict and action don't have to be big. Stuck in traffic on the way to a life-changing meeting can be as dramatic and tense as being bound to a post with a bomb strapped to your waist. Or spilling your coffee on a white shirt just as your stain-averse date enters the restaurant. (Remember sitting in a restaurant? Those were the days...) The key is capturing your reader's attention and giving them a reason to read the next line. Then the next. Then the next. You can do this with world-building, establishing character, or anything you want. It's not the subject matter, it's the execution. Are you describing the world in a way that compels the reader to keep reading?

As Janet says, read widely. Go back to those books that drew you in and ask yourself "Why did I keep reading after line 1, paragraph 1, page 1? What did the author do to capture my attention and hold it?"

All the best, OP!

Steve Forti said...

I think it says something that of all the comments made or to be made in this thread about memorable lines and openings of great novels, the one sentence that is going to stick with me all day was a parenthetical aside from Colin. "Remember sitting in a restaurant?" Oof.

Craig F said...

I am not a killer first line kind of guy. I think that raises expectations too much and when you hit a slow spot it seems like a let down.

I started what I am currently querying at the grand opening of the new dawn of transportation, commercial wormhole gates. The first transit for intrepid reporter Bryn Stephens is right at page five, when the wall the little vehicle she is in is suddenly the Washington Monument.

I will admit that it hasn't gotten the traction I hoped.

Y'all have a great reopening weekend.

Brittany said...

Maybe it's better to differentiate starting with *the* action and starting with *an* action. Diving into *the* action without any context is usually a mistake because we don't understand why any of this matters. (Not always, sometimes you can provide just enough up front and then fill out the rest later.) But that doesn't necessarily mean putting your character through a boring, uneventful day-in-the-life, either. Like, The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty or Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig each open with the MC using her powers on someone ultimately unrelated to the plot. Because there's no larger goal at that moment than "separate this dude from his money" (in both cases, come to think) it can be fairly self-contained and accessible. Then once the reader has a basic understanding of this character and her world, the plot kicks off.

So basically, the reader should immediately see and understand that *something* is at stake, even if it's just the character getting embarrassed or scolded. (And to the point upthread, if you really want to know where your balance should be, look at recent debuts in your genre and category rather than older books and/or books by established authors. Stephen King can get away with things on his first page that you probably cannot, at least not yet.)

Casey Karp said...

So there right now.

The first couple of drafts of my current WiP started with, I think, a killer sentence. But the rest of the first scene? Meh. Important world building and truly introducing the protagonist to the reader, yes, but not gripping enough to hold their attention after that sentence.

So the current draft starts with what was originally the end of Chapter Three.

Much more attention-grabbing. And a much better introduction to the story. Meet the character later--in a significantly abbreviated version of the original opening.

It works, painful though it is to my normally linear mind. We'll see how the beta readers take it.

Fearless Reider said...

A few days ago I got a priceless opportunity to test out this very question when I met with a group of 10 beta readers for feedback on my MG draft. They're a group of home-schooled teens who meet for a book club once a week (via Zoom now) and they are insightful, articulate readers. Luck, lucky me! My novel opens in a moment of high tension for the protagonist where she is completely out of her element. When I first started the novel, the opening was a grounding scene that shows the protagonist in her natural habitat; that's now the start of the second chapter. When I talked with the readers about the opening and why I made that change early on, nine out of the ten agreed that was the way to go. They loved the immediacy of the tension and it kept them turning pages; they remarked a number of times that it "felt like a movie" that was going in their heads. I felt pretty good about that.

I believe the one reader who preferred the slower, introspective start from Chapter 2 was the same one who lamented that I killed off a character who has literally zero redeeming qualities (that's my own failing), because she "kind of liked him." Which just goes to show you: you can't predict or cater to every reader's response, and some girls will always be suckers for bad boys. Really bad boys.

Beth Carpenter said...

This is so useful. I, too, have wondered about the conflicting advice about the first few paragraphs. Great examples. I'm intrigued about the chocolate.

Miles O'Neal said...

I doubt the following applies to the OP, since s/he is a Reefer[1], but one of my pet peeves is the plethora of bad "expert" advice from people who have at best self-published their first novel[2]. Especially those who dish out advice such as "Don't waste money on an editor", "An agent doesn't really do anything for you, just takes your money", or "Don't listen to anyone who says you can't crank out a great novel once month!"

I see that garbage a lot on twitter, and I see people listening to it. Barf.

[1] One who hangs out here on the Reef. What else?
[2] And by "first novel", I mean "the first thing they ever wrote".

John Davis Frain said...

What exquisite examples. I'm compelled to keep reading each of them right now. I need 32-hour days, please.

It occurs to me that if you're writing in first or close third, it's more difficult to build in tension up front if something is going to happen TO your protagonist. (They're in their ordinary world and without an omniscient narrator to explain, we don't know about the inciting incident about to come.) Follett takes care of that in The Key to Rebecca example by employing other tension (a dying camel in the middle of the desert) before he even gets to the inciting incident. Plus, of course, we know Follett is brilliant before we open the cover, so there's that.

So, difficult? Yes. Impossible? No. Just plan on another dozen rewrites. I'm already thinking through the next one. Thank you, Janet.

KariV said...

It's important to keep in mind that starting with action doesn't just mean any old action. A crazy car chase is exciting, but if it's just action for action's sake, you're doing it wrong. They starting point should be something as close as possible to the choice the MC makes that sets the plot in motion. So, if your story is about a victim of DA leaving her abusive husband, you don't need to open with a chapter about her getting beat up (action that would lead to sympathy for character). Instead you could open with the scene where she makes the choice to leave. It's *how* you structure the scene that matters. Letting readers in on years of abuse and how she feels about it and how that shapes her action is what pulls the reader in.

Sadly, as much as I'd love a "this is how it's supposed to be to be successful" - it really is more of a feeling that comes from knowing *your* novel and *your* plot and *your* characters. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for another.

RosannaM said...

Needed this!

Zoom meeting with a writer's group last night and this post has left me feeling itchy to get back at it.

Thanks, Janet.

Alena said...

I really like the way Aaron Sorkin does it in his screenplays. There is a very fast paced, totally engaging, yet totally self contained problem right away, which introduces us to our main character, always in a smart and compelling way. Like in Molly's Game, the skiing incident. Not directly related to the main plot but relevant to the character and really interesting.

Emma said...

The funny thing is the best first sentence I've read this year came not out of a book, but out of a text from a friend.

"I'm still cleaning up the blood."

Now, if I picked up a novel and that was the first line, you bet I'd keep reading. I want to steal it from her!

But if you dissect it, it's both action and setting the scene, not to mention VOICE. It raises questions, it's unusual enough to wake up the reader's brain, and it's just about perfect.

P.S. My friend is okay.

Joseph S. said...

I needed this post. I've been sitting on my duff for months wanting to tackle that elusive first chapter again. I still don't know how I'll do it.

Maybe I'l start with a pencil in my hand.

Joseph S. said...

Katja (see her comment above) started her first chapter in "One of Us Must Go" enticingly:

My mobile phone buzzes in front of me on the bare windowstill.

One Message.

"Lock me up in at 11, as usual," Sonja writes.

Same message she sent yesterday at this time. Same as the day before. And the day before that . . . She reminds me every night. As if I didn't know.

Six tense pages later she ends the first chapter:

"Okay, will lock you in at 11 then, as usual, " I lie, then put the phone back on the windowsill.

NLiu said...

My favourite opening line is from Naomi Novik's Uprooted: "Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley."

She immediately establishes:

1. The main character's sense of pride in her valley (big plot/character point) by repeating "our" - even about an apparent enemy

2. Enough worldbuilding to immediately ground you (here be dragons!)

3. The question of what on earth the Dragon DOES do with the girls (the main source of tension for the first half of the novel).


I'm still hoping to one day write an opening line that emulates it!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I think so much depends on [a red wheelbarrow] both the story and the reader. Not every story is going to have a punchy first line and immediate action to grab you, and not every story is going to ease you into the bath for a nice long soak.

One of my absolute favorite first lines is Stephen King's "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." I followed that sentence, and a whole lotta sentences after it, but I could see how other readers might feel meh about it, and not be interested in the questions raise (who is the man in black? what desert? what gunslinger? is this a cowboy book?). Another of my favorites is ""Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Again, somebody might be like "who are you and why the fuck do I care about Manderley, whatever that is?" Or, they're caught. A third favorite (this is my last one I promise) is Neuromancer's: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Oh yes. Tell me more, please. But are dead channels the same color on modern TVs? I don't think the are!

My (I think?) most popular short story, "Daddy's Girl", starts with "When I was born, my daddy didn’t come home from war, but the army sent a drone, hand sized and with tiny little pincher arms, in a broken-sealed box." It's worked for at least two publications (the first, Syntax & Salt, the second, StarShipSofa), and for a number of readers. Though of course, I picked that one, and don't know which kind of beginning to call it. Kind of world-build-y? I open another short story, "For Whatever We Lose" (which will be in Escape Pod on May 14, and was in Luna Station Quarterly last yar) with "I lied to meet an astronaut." I feel that's kind of grabby? (it is also factual)

Aphra Pell said...

I've rewritten my opening many many times. I've finally got one I'm satisfied with - my inciting incident is the protagonist finding the corpse of someone close to her, and the right balance for me was starting just a few seconds before that.

My concern is that it might be a bit dark. Unexpectedly finding someone you love dead is devastating, and that's how it is written. I (modestly) think it is pretty gripping, but we'll have to see how the guinea pig readers take it.

Alina Sergachov said...

I like the opening line from Gary Corby's novel: "A dead man fell from the sky..." Another example that I'm fond of is from STRAIGHT by Dick Francis: "I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me."

My own opening line was rewritten many, many times. Right now it's this: "For the record, it's not my fault I got mistaken for an alien."

Kae Ridwyn said...

Thank you Janet, for this post - thanks also Reiders for chiming in with such inspiring examples! I have the feeling my TBR pile's about to grow a whole lot bigger...

Aphra Pell said...

Alina, I love your first line.

Alina Sergachov said...

Thank you very much, Aphra Pell!

Unknown said...

OP, if it helps any, I recently got a R&R where the only notes were about my first chapter. I had started with an unofficial action-packed prologue showing a situation that befell my 2nd MC in the past. Then, a couple of chapters later, we learn how this is tied to my MC because something similar happens to her. I did it this way because it was chronological. Because MC and 2nd MC share this experience is why they team up later. I've seen this done in many books and never thought anything of it. The agent pointed out how the reader doesn't know any of the characters yet and therefore doesn't care if they get caught up in the bad action so soon. She suggested opening with the MC and getting to know her first so the reader will become invested in her story so that when the action does happen, they (should) care. I understand her point--even if I thought it was clearly explained soon enough and my betas got it--so I reworked it as suggested because she's the pro (but still haven't heard back). I guess this is just proof that it's subjective. The suggestions didn't bother me because I still get to tell my story; I just get the chance to possibly tell it in a better way.