I’m judging a contest for a state award’s program and I’m struck again by stories that open with a scene. Reading through a dozen manuscripts at a time, you get an overview of what works and what doesn’t.I’ve written a lot about the opening of a story here (the most popular post on this blog) and here (links to many other articles). I’ve even written a book about starting your novel. This time, I think I’ll talk about how things go wrong.
How Story Openings Go Wrong
Ramble. The character is usually first person and just rambles along about something. I know that this is supposed to let me into the character’s mind, and sometimes, it does. But I’ve no compelling reason to care. Why is this important NOW?
I Am. These stories open with a list of character qualities, often apologizing for this or that, or going into long-winded details. Again, why should the reader care NOW?
Strange Voice and POV. Some stories try a sort of prologue where the opening chapter is omniscient or 3rd person. The next chapter settles into a first person. That opening chapter sets up a promise to the reader and the next chapter breaks it. Sometimes, the odd choice of POV is even a put off. For example, the story might read: “One might think that this happens often.” Instead, of philosophizing and talking to the reader, a great story starts with the story.
2nd Paragraph Flashback. This one is particularly frustrating. Often I read a great first paragraph that sets the scene, sets up a problem and grabs my interest. However, the next paragraph is a flashback that tries to explain everything. No. You lost me. Stay in the scene. If that information is crucial to the scene (and usually it isn’t) then weave it into the story in drips. Just give me the information I MUST have to understand the NOW of the story. Literary agent and story coach Donald Maass is famous for saying no flashbacks until after page 100. I agree.
Open with a SceneInstead, open your story with a scene. A scene is a connected string of events where something happens. The character has a goal: they want something. Obstacles keep the character from getting that something. Usually there’s what Sandra Scofield calls a “pivot moment” where the dynamics of the scene change in some way. Finally, there’s a resolution. The character either gets what they want, or they don’t. Positive or negative, the resolution thrusts the character into the next scene.
Stories that open with a scene put the reader into the moment. You live and breathe as the character does. If the character longs for a quiet moment then the reader longs for that quiet moment. The emotional impact of a scene pulls the reader along.
Please, if you’re writing a novel, open with a scene.
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