In an interview in The Atlantic back in 2013, Stephen King said, “I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.”
I feel that way about first scenes. Until I have a solid first scene to use as a springboard into a book, I can’t seem to get anywhere. I may have a ton of ideas about all the things that could/should happen in the story, but until that first scene gels, I can’t seem to take that anywhere.
I think that’s because first scenes, as well as being the springboard into the book, also (usually) introduce the main character. And until I really understand that main character (and her antagonist) I just tread water.
“Get the first scene down solid” is an axiom I’ve lived by for the past fifteen years or so that I’ve been writing a lot.
Unfortunately, belief in the power of that first scene as a springboard to a workable novel recently bit me in the butt. I wrote what I think is a really strong opening scene for a book I titled The Demon Wore Stilettos, where the protagonist, who has signed a contract to trade her soul to Satan in exchange for making the NYT bestseller list, watches a friend who signed a similar contract get sucked down to Hell. She comes away determined to save herself from a similar fate.
It’s a really powerful scene, as are the next few that follow, but after that I wandered off into weeds that look a lot more like women’s fiction than romance. Eventually I wound up on the shores of This-Isn’t-Going-Anywhere.
It was very frustrating, and it took me several months to accept that all the time and work I put into that story weren’t going to generate a viable novel, at least not a romance.
A few weeks ago I finally accepted reality and started over. This is the opening of the new first scene of The Demon Wore Stilettos (keeping the title because the book is still about Lilith):
The she-demon Lilith held her head high as a guard led her through the hardened lava doorway into Courtroom 9H. The courtroom lay at the bottom of the Ninth Ring of Hell, only a stone’s throw from the Lake of Fire. Between lashes heavy with mascara, her eyes watered from the stench of brimstone.
The catcalls started as soon as she entered the chamber.
It looked like half of Hell had come out to see her convicted of murdering her ex-husband.
It’s just a start, and I now know a good start is still no guarantee of a viable story, but I’m interested to see where it leads.
How about you? If you’re a writer, do you focus on getting a strong start? Or do you figure you’ll be rewriting that first scene a million times so it doesn’t matter?
If you’re a reader, how much power does a strong first scene have for you? If the book starts off really strong, are you more likely to keep reading if the book sags later? Are you comfortable buying based on the sample?