Jeanne: The First Scene

shutterstock_785583991In 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.

“Murderess!”

“Angel-killer!”

“Seraph-slayer!”

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?

4 thoughts on “Jeanne: The First Scene

  1. I know the first scene and the last scene before I start a new project, and I know what kind of book I’m writing (the light kind or the heavy kind), so I don’t anguish too much about what happens scene-wise when I start. I know what’s going to happen and what tone I’m taking. But because I myself buy books based on the first paragraph or sometimes the first sentence, I do anguish over those. I’ve rewritten opening sentences sometimes several dozen times. I’m willing to take Stephen King on in that department!

    Congratulations on restructuring your new book! Sorry about that false start. 😦

  2. I work very, very linearly. I tend to start at the beginning, and work to the end . . . which means it’s very easy to get stuck in cul de sacs that lead nowhere and waste a lot of time figuring out how to make what worked on page 25 also work on page 114.

    I really envy someone like Jenny who makes up all the patchwork quilt blocks, and then figures out where they go and how they go.

    OTOH, knowing the ending doesn’t really help me at all. In my current problem child, er, WIP, I did have a strong vision for the ending, but so far (three major tries) I can’t get the story to connect the beginning to the Real Ending. I felt pressed for time during the National Novel Writing Month attempt, and couldn’t get a major character fitted into the plot at all. I guess I just have to keep trying.

  3. At McDaniel, Jenny taught us to write the first scene and then the last scene. I know this is really good advice–having a draft of that last scene gives you a north star to navigate by–but I just can’t seem to make myself do it. It feels like I don’t know the characters well enough to even get close, so why bother?

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