Last week, I wrote a post about the need for motion/activity in the first scene of a book. Almost to a woman, the other Ladies disagreed. I’m pretty stubborn and opinionated, but consensus disagreement from so many people whose opinions I respect is enough to make even me stop and reconsider. So, I decided to pull last year’s most top 10 most popular romances on Goodreads and analyze them for the level of activity in the first scene.
The Kiss Quotient—Helen Hoang Three people sitting at a table, talking. At the end of the conversation, the daughter kisses the dad and hugs the mom.
All Your Perfects—Colleen Hoover Girl rides up an elevator to surprise her fiance, but when she gets to his floor, there’s an angry guy pacing outside his apartment door because, apparently, the fiance is inside boinking the guy’s girlfriend. At first she doesn’t believe him, but then they overhear the couple inside. Girl slides down the wall to the floor as reality hits her. Angry guy sits beside her. Another guy shows up with Chinese food. Girl refuses to allow hims to deliver the food and instead eats it sitting outside the apartment with the angry guy.
The Wedding Date—Jasmine Guillory–Girl gets on a hotel elevator, on her way to visit her sister, who just made partner in her law firm. She has champagne and cheese and crackers in her purse to celebrate. Lights go out, elevator stops, lights come back on, there’s a guy in the elevator with her. They banter; they sit on the floor, he scoots over to look in her purse, they talk about his situation (groom in his best friend’s and ex-girlfriend’s wedding) as he counts off the misery of that situation on his fingers, he pats her shoulder, she touches his hand, she picks up her purse and moves it out of his reach, she relaxes against the wall, moving her slightly closer to him. He reaches across her for the cheese, she agrees to let him have some, he eats cheese. The elevator starts moving, he helps her to her feet, they get off on sister’s floor, shake hands and part ways.
The Thief— J.R. Ward Woman opens a sliding door and steps onto a balcony in Miami overlooking Biscayne Bay. She sits down in a lawn chair. She leans forward but the railing blocks her view so she leans back again. She taps the heel of her flip-flop up and down repeatedly (signaling nervous energy). Flashback to kidnapping/incarceration/ attempted rape/self-defense murder (twice)/escape/rescue. She rubs her eyes. She looks at her phone and remembers her rescuer. She gets to her feet, goes back into her apartment, kicks off her flip-flops. She gets a tool kit from under the sink, takes out a hammer, puts her phone into a baggie and smashes it with the hammer.
Darker—E.L. James Guy is in a car, waiting for his girlfriend (they’re estranged, he hopes to get back together) to get off work. There’s a chauffeur in the front seat. The chauffeur gets out of the car. Guy fumbles for his phone, decides against texting her that he’s outside. Outside the car, the chauffeur paces. The girlfriend comes out of the building. Chauffeur opens the car door; she gets in. The chauffeur pulls away from the curb. The girlfriend waves at the guy who followed her out of the building. Guy reaches for her hand. He pulls her into his lap. He buries his face in her hair. After a moment, she relaxes against him. The car reaches its destination. He lifts her off his lap. Chauffeur opens her door. Guy and girlfriend walk into the building, get into the elevator. They exit the elevator onto the roof and get into a helicopter. He buckles her in. He runs his finger down her cheek.
Pestilience—Laura Thalassa Four firemen draw matchsticks to determine who stays behind to meet some threat. The POV character, who turns out to be female, draws the burnt match. The other three hug her and leave.
From Lukov with Love—Mariana Zapata An ice skater falls on her butt. She stares at the overhead banners, touting her would-be partner’s accomplishments. She gets to her feet, skates around people to the edge of the ice, goes to the locker room, takes off her skates.
Roomies—Christina Lauren A slightly drunk girl takes a cab from Brooklyn into Manhattan. She gets out and walks down the stairs to a subway station, where she drops a dollar into the open guitar case of a busker. They converse for a moment; she hurries away. She pulls out her phone. A vagrant starts following her, insisting that she has his phone. They tussle for the phone. She falls onto the tracks.
The Hookup—Kristen Ashley Girl wakes up in a stranger’s bed and thinks about how she came to be there. Eventually she gets up and goes to the bathroom, where she spies bath salts (not the drug), brushes her teeth with her finger and uses mouthwash. She goes to the kitchen and gets a cup of coffee and then joins him out on the balcony outside the bedroom. They banter a little and then kiss.
Hello Stranger—Lisa Kleypas A female doctor walks through Clerkenwell, and East London parish, following her shift at a charity hospital. She senses someone following her. She is waylaid by three soldiers with rape on their minds. She disables two of them, then whirls to confront the other only to find he’s already on the ground unconscious.
This doesn’t take into account voice, character or much about setting. Based strictly on the levels of activity, which of these sounds the most interesting to you?
First thought: there’s an awful lot of elevators in best sellers! Am I missing something?
Second thought: I’ve wanted to read The Kiss Quotient because it’s a talked-about Asian romance. It’s the only one on your list that I’ve remembered I want to read.
Third thought: I’m attracted to the cheese and crackers one, because I like cheese. I know cheese is no basis for judging a book, but my goodness, it is a selling point for me.
Fourth thought: Waking up in a stranger’s bed (with no angst that I can see!) sounds thrilling and exciting. If you were offering me two free books, I’d take that one (plus The Kiss Quotient).
I’ve had a really good reading week, so let me share my three books.
“The Orphans of Raspay” Lois McMaster Bujold. This is a fantasy genre work, so it usually needs a strong situation in the beginning. I can only describe about half the first scene; I’m not sure if it’s two that are well-blended, or one long one with LOTS of stuff happening. A sickening crunch throws our hero out of his bunk. He’s on a ship that’s on disturbed waters. Pirates! His demon remembers other pirate raids. Shouting and crying in three languages. He tosses incriminating evidence out the porthole. Pirates break into his cabin, capture him and truss him up. He assesses the other prisoners, sees ghosts, prays, and helps a god retrieve one of the ghostly souls. More argument with his demon . . . .
*This is How You Lose the Time War* Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone. This is from the science fiction genre, and packed with more action than I remembered. This isn’t the whole scene; it’s only the first three Kindle pages. Heroine has blood slicked hair, breathing out steam. She climbs up the time threads, holds a corpse. Her weapons and armor fold into her “like roses in dusk” and her body heals on fast-forward. She paces the battlefield, checking that all is in order, and then sees her rival.
*Less* Andrew Sean Greer Literary genre. Our hero waits in a hotel lobby, fidgeting. A young woman is circling the lobby, asking people questions. She even goes to the elevator! (But not in it.) Our hero’s shoe is jiggling on his foot. There’s an inflatable literary character outside, flopping in the wind. In reverie, literary criticism pierces his hide. The clock chimes.
This is more in line with your examples. Maybe contemporary stories have a lot more scene-setting and reverie, while fantasy and science fiction moves and paces.
Sorry for the delay–I was at the RWA National Conference without passwords or anything resembling free time.
Re: your comment about being attracted to the book with cheese–I suspect that most of us pick up books for reasons just as flimsy. Something just connects. Could be cheese. Could be something about the hero/heroine. Could be use of a word on the first page that really resonates with us.
I’m not reading suspense at the moment, so I can’t imagine that I’d choose to read “The Thief” by JR Ward. But for me, her setup has the most interesting story question: why would she smash her cell phone. If I were buying a book to read now, while I’m recovering from surgery, it would either be the cheese in the elevator one or the Chinese food delivery one. On the other hand, maybe right now I’m just hungry. 🙂
Interesting idea to compare the setups In such a bare-bones way. Among other things, it really shows how it’s not so much the action as what you do with it.
Very true. In Helen Hoang’s book, even though there’s very little motion, the MC’s internal thoughts reveal that there’s a reason for that–she’s on the spectrum and she doesn’t enjoy physical contact. And since the dialogue (also missing) sets up that her parents want her to marry and have children, that’s a whole boatload of conflict right there.