Monday, January 14, 2013

Opening Scenes


What's the first thing you read in a book? Unless you're one of those people who likes to read the ending first or flip to the middle of a book or just weigh it in your hand, you probably read the opening first.

Openings are often the most rewritten portions of a piece, especially a novel. It has to entice the reader (not to mention a literary agent). It has to set up the narrative voice--whether it's third person or first person and what kind of voice will be guiding the reader through. It should contain a hook, the crux of the novel, without giving the entire story away. It should establish a character--ideally, the protagonist--or the setting. It definitely sets the tone for the novel. It's delicate and complicated to write. How, exactly, do you get all of that stuff in?

Writer's Digest has a very detailed article called Opening Scenes: An Overview. Also, The Very Beginning: Your Opening Scene.

An opening scene can be leisurely, with slow language, maybe a description of the setting. It can be action-filled, fast-paced, put the reader right into the story. It can be a character study. It can show the reader part of the climax. But it ought to pull the reader in, make them feel like they're along for the ride. Here's a post by agent Kristin Nelson on Action vs. Active Openings.


Some of these things are explained in a past post. What kind of opening scenes do you like to read or write?
Things opening scenes should not be: Boring. Stiff. Backstory. A character waking up or some other cliche like that. A character who has nothing to do with the rest of the story. Action, action, action that has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Dialogue that does nothing. Lack of conflict. Lack of direction--where are you taking me in this story? 

To give some examples and to evaluate my own opening scenes,  I went trawling through electronic files to find the various openings of the many incarnations of my current WIP. Maybe someday, I'll post the opening scenes of other stuff I've written.

Below is the either the first or second draft opening paragraphs of what was then called Mady's Story, envisioned as a historical Regency romance novel. This was the prologue. It was submitted to the Emily Contest in 2009, where the judges noted that it was too dry or textbook-y. Reading it over for this post, I agree:

The true difference between the young Keegan sisters, the only one that seemed to matter to the world at large,was that they had different mothers and were thus different colors.

Their father, Miles Keegan, knew better. He struggled into a tight overcoat of respectable black, emphasized by a black armband as the port came into view, the Olaudah sweeping into Bristol's port on the high tide of an overcast day. It was exactly how he remembered Great Britain. What a miserable place.

A widower of six months' duration, and it was the first time Miles donned the blacks since his wife Delphine's funeral in Barbados. Of course, a man was not expected to wear extensive mourning for a full year, as a widow would for her dead husband. An armband for a year sufficed.

His children were most emphatically not in mourning wear. It was traumatic enough, he thought, that they'd lost their mother and now their homeland. Sparing them the outward evidence of one loss might make up for the other.

This is the next version of Mady's Story, which I then gave the working title of The Keegan Inheritance to. I think I tried to open with Mady, who was my heroine, and feed the backstory in little drips as recommended by the Emily Contest judges. But it opens as Mady wakes up in the morning. Ugh:

A house girl, I think. Looks high yellow.”

Mady Keegan’s eyes opened with a jolt of her heart and a kick from her memory. Slowly, her mind awakened, taking in the papered walls, the two windows, the two closed doors. Twin wash stands and twin screens were in opposite corners. One oak desk and chair stood close to the window.

Sitting up, blinking away sleep and the nightmare, Mady glanced to the other bed, a mere two feet away. It was empty, sheets and coverlet stretched over the mattress.


This next opening is the most atmospheric of the bunch. This was written in 2012, after I'd decided to tell Miles's story as historical fiction. This meant a lot more research because in order to stay with the same timeline that I'd created for the first incarnation, I moved the setting from 1814 to 1800. I've since decided that the scene as a whole is too action-without-much-purpose.

The schooner was making good time; another week or so and the vast, empty Atlantic would become the verdant west coast of England. Miles Keegan strode across deck as a blazing red sunset painted the roiling dark waters a grey hue. The sails glowed yellow and orange. The wood surrounding him gleamed. Miles squinted in the face of the sinking sun.

Supper would be served soon; unheard under the swishing of the ship passing through the water, under the calls and yells of the sailors, Miles's stomach growled. He walked forward. The breeze was picking up slightly. Sails billowed. His coattails blew. The smell of salt permeated everything—and everything was in order.

Something moved in the rigging to starboard side.


Below is the opening scene I wrote two weeks ago. I like it, for the moment. I'm pleased with it, actually, since it has strong dialogue and sense of characters.

Miles had expected the news for weeks, if he was honest. Deep in his bones, he knew the inevitable would happen, so he was able to keep his face impassive when Fraser informed him that, finally, Lamia the kitchen maid had run away.

"Last night," Fraser said in his impenetrable Scots burr. "I've sent for the hounds and inquired all the kitchen slaves—"

"Fraser," Miles interrupted in the most cut-glass accent he could muster. He did not bother glancing up from the ledger, which told him that the cane was yielding well. Each neat column pointed to the profit from the sugar being higher than last year's. "Cease poking about in the kitchens. You wouldn't want to upset my digestion."

"No, of course not, Mr. Keegan."

Miles swallowed the acrid taste in his mouth as he checked the page, seeing that each component of the crop would make him even wealthier. Did other men taste acid when they reached a certain level of material success, too?


So, how many openings have you written for your current piece? How many openings have you discarded? Why? Do you find it hard to write them?

What is your favorite opening line or opening scene in a book?

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