Opening scenes

» Posted on May 31, 2006 in Blog | 6 comments

I have been judging some contests and have been asking myself where should a story start. It is one of the important decisions for a writer when telling a story. If you start too soon, you might lose your reader as you set up a situation. Pacing is important. Too slow and the reader will put your book down. Too fast and you will confuse the reader and leave out details and feelings that need to be in your story.

So where do you start? I like to start in the middle of a scene or at a change in your hero or heroine’s life. In my newest book, Once Upon a Family which will be out next April for Love Inspired, I start when the heroine has to pick up her troubled teenage son from the principal’s office (he’s the hero) and deal with problem involving her son. Another opening where the heroine is facing something new in her life is with my Love Inspired Suspense out in January 2007, Heart of the Amazon. Kate, a prim and proper secretary of a church, must go into a bar in a small town on the Amazon to hire a guide to help her search for her missing brother. She’s never been in a bar and doesn’t drink. Then when she meets the best guide in the area, she meets her worst nightmare–everything she isn’t. Talk about opposites!

A word about prologues which sometimes an author will use at the beginning of her story. I don’t usually have one. Unless the story really should begin years before, don’t do a prologue but start with chapter one even if it is months between the first and second chapter. A lot of readers skip prologues. A lot of time the information in a prologue can be fed into the body of the story in pieces. If you can avoid a prologue, you probably should.
The opening line or paragraph is important and should be considered at length. But even more so is the whole opening scene. Where is the best place to start a book? What are some of the best openers you have read lately?

6 Comments

  1. Sorry, Margaret, but this is off topic. I just read your bio and thought of this connection as I was commenting on Camy’s blog. I copied the relevant part from there.

    My sister-in-law has been teaching kids with reading problems. Technically they’re in Grade 9 or so but she was to teach them how to read. I don’t know if they have other disabilities too. She had a hard decision to make when she entered that program and another one when she decided to leave and go back to the other school. At 51 I guess she’s also feeling her age. She really had a very busy year. She usually didn’t get home from school until about 8 p.m., often later, and usually gets there early and works during the holidays as well. She is a very dedicated teacher–much more than I ever was. Of course, that leaves other loose ends when you have a family.

    That’s what I transferred. Both her younger sisters are also teachers and her oldest daughter is in Uganda doing her, hmm, co-op for university at a mission station there. She first was going to go to Guatemala but I think the fact that she had to learn Spanish for it, was just a little bit too much of a burden. Though I’m not positive which language is actually used there, she is fluent in English and French.

    Your books sound really great. I was on your site to see the trailer of the other book that came out this year. It looks great. If there was sound with it, I couldn’t get it. Some of my computer equipment is still in Limboland. (I moved in November) The speakers are part of it.

    I’ll see about a great opening. I have one that I remember but not exactly.

  2. All right, this is more or less how that opening chapter began in one of the books by one of Jayne Anne Krentz’s alter egos:

    Napoleon’s forces were lined up on one side of the hill and could not be detected by the English. On the other side, the Duke of Wellington was lining up his forces and in the distance one could barely see the Prussian troops.

    Mind you, this was in a Silhouette book. I thought I’d stumbled into a historical book. I was really curious. It turns out that the scene is correct but…it is a scene set up on a large table in a shop that sells tin soldiers, cannons and the like. Still not what you’d expect for a modern shop that a woman would own.

    It was definitely one of the most arresting opening scenes I’ve ever come across. You couldn’t help but continue reading especially, if like me, you were also a history fan.

    I guess authors must have been paying attention to opening sentences for quite a while already. The following two are the first sentences (and paragraphs) in books by Elswyth Thane:

    “It was her birthday, and she was ninety-five.” (Yankee Stranger, 1944) You wonder who “she” is and how she could have reached this ripe old age. What was her life like? What would the day bring? Even, how long would she still live?

    “The letter from Miss Eden had come.” (Ever After, 1945) You sense right away that the letter was expected. Why is she “miss”; is Eden her last or first name? Why was the letter expected and what will it contain?

    The quotes are from Thane’s Williamsburg novels. They’ve been some of my favorites for almost 50 years. I can’t remember when I actually first read them. I just know I have read and reread them numerous times and finally found the last book in the series in 1987 while I was on a trip to Washington DC to visit friends of mine and then went on to Williamsburg and that whole area. That had been one of my dreams ever since I read the first of the series. I also hoped to find the last book there. Actually, I was very disappointed because I couldn’t find even one book, never mind the one I still needed until I stopped at a house proclaiming that it was a bookstore on my way to see Jamestown on pretty well the last day I was there. And there I found it. All my other books by her are paperback reprints, but that one seems to be the original hardcover, though there is no dj. But inside is a written name: “Elswyth Thane” in spidery but firm handwriting. Is this her signature? I don’t know but I’m still trying to find out.

  3. Wonderful thoughts! I’ve heard a lot of talk about prologues lately. I think they often give away too much info, especially in suspense stories. It’s so much better to learn the backstory and mystery one tiny hint at a time!

    I have read a few that are good though!

    I guess I think starting at the moment something happens to alter the character’s current life path has always been where I begin. It’s usually in the middle of a scene. I think it’s the monumental moment and putting it at the start really emphasizes that!

  4. I like books that open with some sort of action. Something happening. Some conflict. It doesn’t have to necessarily relate to the h/H’s story arc, but it should be something to pull me into their world and their characters.

    Sometimes I dislike prologues for that reason–it doesn’t serve to put me in the story world, it’s just backstory.

    Camy

  5. As a reader I like starting in the middle of some kind of action as well. If there’s too much description or people not doing much, I stop reading. I used to push myself to read every book until the end. Now I give a book 3 chapters at the MOST.

    Bearing that in mind, I’m starting my first re-write, and trying several different openings to see which one works to show both characterization, and action, with a sense of setting. It’s not as easy as many writers make it look:)

  6. Thanks for your comments about openings. Georgianad, I used to read every book I started, too. Now I don’t have the time.
    Margaret

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