Wednesday, January 9, 2013

3 Tips for Writing that Crucial First Scene

As most people know, agents and acquisitions representatives for publishing companies have a never-ending stack of query letters on their desk to deal with. It is possible to be discovered from the slush pile, but it's very difficult. In truth, the odds are stacked against you.

First there's that all-important query letter, which I won't discuss today. If you want an awesome formula for writing the perfect query (it's the one that I use) I'll refer you to Elana Johnson.

But let's say you get past that query milestone and the agent or editor picks up the first page of your story. You have to impress them with that first scene or they will read no farther. Guaranteed. So, how do you do that? It's the topic of endless discussions among would-be authors. Here are some modest tips that I've found can help:

1. Start in a moment, not in a world. I've been told over and over by industry professionals that you should always start out in a character's head, in a significant moment. Now, by "significant moment" I don't mean the climatic battle or defining crossroads of their existence. Rather, it's a significant moment because the character is immersed in it. Focus on being in the character's head, on their observations and sensations.
It was an odd-looking vine...It was the smell that had first caught his attention, a smell like the decomposition of something that had been wholly unsavory even in life. Richard combed his fingers through his thick hair as his mind lifted otu of the fog of despair, coming into focus upon seeing the vine...Terry Goodkind, Wizard's First Rule

You see? We are in his head, experiencing what he is experiencing. These are the first few paragraphs of this series, and the author doesn't talk about the world, the situation, the character's life or history, etc. He does, however, hint at a despair that makes us curious to keep reading.

 2. Assume the reader already knows your world. Not "telling" is a given in writing anyway, but it's even more important here. We tend to want to tell about everything in our story because these are the first few lines and we want the reader to understand things about our world. Big no-no! Don't tell about your world or your character's past or anything like that. Now, this is a fine line. You can talk about the world without explaining it. That's what I mean by assume the reader already knows it. In this next example, we begin in the middle of a scene where two men are arguing.
Elan Morin grimaced. "Look at you," he said scornfully. "Once you stood first among the Servants. Once you wore the Ring of Tamyrlin, and sat in the High Seat. Once you summoned the Nine Rods of Dominion. Now look at you! A pitiful shattered wretch. But it is not enough. You humbled me in the Hall of Servants. You deeated me at the Gates of Paaran Disen. But I am the greater now. I will not let you die without knowing that..." Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World

This is not the beginning of the book, but it's a few pages into the first scene. Do you see how Jordan speaks about the world as though the reader already knows it? Do you see how, if he had paused to explain what the Hall of Servants or the Nine Rods of Dominion were, it would take away from the narrative and pull the reader out of the story. This is one of the most powerful scenes I've ever read--the prologue to one of the greatest epic fantasies ever written--and it's beautifully executed. Part of  that is that the author mentions details of the world he's built without explaining them. It lends authority to his writing and makes us want to continue on.

3. Take Author Barbara Kyle's advice. In an article entitled Making an Entrance she gives the following advice:
          a. Determine your character's defining quality.
          b. Show that quality through action.

With your first scene, it will always be your main character. By showing their defining quality and showing it through action, you establish the character in the reader's mind and write a compelling first scene. This is how, according to Kyle, your character "makes an entrance."

I'm not going to do an actual quote for this one because it would take too long, but let's consider Harry Potter. In the first scene in which we see Harry interact with the Dursleys, a few things happen. 1) They order him around and treat him like dirt, including Dudley harassing him about his scar. 2) He has mutinous thoughts, but doesn't voice them. 3) The things he thinks show that he is a decent kid, unlike his cousin Dudley. Of course that's just the first scene. But what have we established? That he's kind and down-to-earth. That's he's humble because of the way he's grown up. That he's angry with a bit of rebellion in him. That he's different and probably special in a significant way.  Are these not the defining aspects of Harry's character throughout the series? And Rowling has established them through action; in this case, through interaction with the Dursleys. Thus begins the epic story of the boy wizard.

What do you think? What tips or experience have you had with your first scenes?

Random Movie Quotes (RMQ)!


Yesterdays RMQ was: "Are you sure it isn't time for another colorful metaphor?" This was said by Leonard Nimoy playing Spock in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Awesome film! So funny! Alex Cavanaugh guessed this one. Great job, Alex!

Today's RMQ is:

"Grace has Bob's dead wife's heart!

One point for film, one for actress, one for character. Good luck! :D 

1 comment :

  1. My tip - don't let them suck!
    My second and third books saw a definite improvement in the beginnings.
    Right now I am working on a synopsis for the third one. Think I hate writing those even more.