I just finished reading a first chapter for a friend who’d been wanting me to critique for her. (Note: I’m pretty sure this falls under the heading of “Be Careful What You Wish For”).
Her writing is solid—clear, grammatical, easy to follow—and the character she introduced was sympathetic and likable. Great start.
The problem I had with the scene was that nothing much happened. And not only did nothing much happen, but the character in question didn’t even move around very much. He got out of his car, climbed the steps to someone’s front porch, dodged a bee, and knocked on the door.
That’s not a lot of activity for eight pages.
After I fired off my response email, suggesting she incorporate more action and present conflict, I hopped on Instagram, where I came across a meme on “8 Reasons Your First Scene Isn’t Working.” They were all good points, but the list didn’t include lack of action.
One of the things we learned at McDaniel was that readers judge characters, not by what they say, or even think, but by what they do.
All of that made me think about the motion/energy/activity level in my own new first scene. My scene has conflict, but there’s still a strong aura of “talking heads” about it—just two characters standing around yapping at each other.
Which, now that I’m aware of it, I can fix.
What are your thoughts on this? Is it okay with you if the first scene in a book is just people talking or thinking? Or do you want to see some bodies in motion?
I’m often OK with a sitting-and-waiting scene at the beginning, as long as it sets the scene, establishes the world, and gives us a reason to sit and wait.
(-: But in my own work, I tend to start with action. Maybe too much action, food fights, etc.
Since I tend to write short, I don’t spend eight pages on the waiting. Eight paragraphs even seems kind of long to wait before there’s a knock on the door, or another person coming into the scene.
I can handle a sittin’-and-thinkin’ scene at the beginning, but only if the writing is spectacular and makes me see some familiar thought or idea in a different light–like in good literary fiction.
Yeah, I think maybe that’s the thing. Perhaps your friend just added action (swatting at a bee) for the sake of action? It can show character, but I prefer quick brushstrokes of character, followed up by characters doing something.
(-: But an amazing voice will make me forget everything about craft. Best of all worlds: an amazing voice doing something.
I think what makes a good opening in part depends on what kind of book you’re writing or reading. Remember Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook”? That was 5,000 pages of yap, yap, yap. Nothing EVER happens in that book. But If you’re reading or writing action/adventure, you expect to see the inciting event: the gunslinger rides into town, the fugitive sees a familiar face, the housewife reads the letter, whatever it is. There should be a promise or a question in readers’ minds of what happens next, the thing that makes the reader turn the page.
If, for example, in the scene that you read, the man faced something behind the door that he feared or expected or wanted and that would be turned on its head when the door opened, I might say the scene was OK as written. But then the writing should reflect that kind of tension or foreshadowing. I don’t think an opening scene needs overt conflict, or even more action, as long as there was emotional tension and an expectation that something would happen when the door opened. But if you were bored by the selection, then it doesn’t work no matter what happens afterwards.
That’s what it always comes down to–and that’s as reader-dependent as it is writer-dependent.
I have found that, over time, I am less enamored with books that start with a bang (so to speak) of conflict and action and whatnot. I’m willing to let a story take some time to develop, as long as there is some indication that it is developing into something.
I have read a number of books lately that had so much packed into the opening scene(s)/chapter that it felt overwhelming. Then again I’ve also been reading a lot of older Victorian-era stories, which tend to be a lot slower to start and develop, so I may just be in that mood.
Georgette Heyer can be like that and I personally love it. Then again, it depends on the story. there’s some sitting and talking and eating in my first scene, but it escalates fairly quickly.
IDK, maybe it’s because I’m getting old, but I’m okay with books where the pace is a bit slower (as far as action goes).
LOL–it appears that I’m outnumbered on this one. Which is probably just as well because I’m pretty sure the recipient of my critique declined to take my advice.
Thinking I may revisit this topic next week and cite my favorite story beginnings and look at them for how much activity there is.
Speaking of which, I started a new book yesterday, Lovely Digits by Jeanine Englert, which starts with a toe rolling across a floor and the heroine, who prepares bodies for burial for a living, chasing it down.
I was instantly in love.
I am with the majority on this one. What I like in the first scene is wholly dependent upon other factors like genre, voice, style, etc. The one thing that turns me off, but that I will tolerate in some cases, like Where the Crawdads Sing, (geez, waffle much, Nancy?) is too much detail. And just like detail, action has to serve a story purpose beyond “Hey, isn’t all this action exciting?”
A few days ago, I was rewatching one of my favorite TV series opening scenes, season 1 episode 1 of HBO’s Deadwood. There is a lot of action in that scene. Men with guns. A loaded coach rolling up from the alleyway. A convict with a rope around his neck, put there by the sheriff. A few things I won’t mention as they would ruin the scene for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. And here’s the interesting thing I JUST INTERNALIZED upon what must have been at least the fifth time I’ve watched that scene: it is not the inciting incident. That comes in the next scene when a stranger–actually, many strangers–come to town. But that first scene tells you so much about one of the lead characters of the series, it seems necessary.
Stories on screen tend to get a bit more leeway to have establishing shots, though, so unrelated-to-the-main-story action that gives great characterization might make readers throw books against walls. But as with everything in story, YMMV :-).