Monday, 27 July 2009

About Opening Scenes

One of the most common pieces of writing advice you'll hear today is "hook them on the first page". In fact it's often phrased as "hook them with the first line". This is why writers often spend so long labouring over their first lines, because they know you have to catch the reader early or they'll close the book and move on to the next one.

However it is important to note we writers sometimes worry about it far too much. A great first line is a good thing, but it's no good if you don't follow it up with a strong first scene. And a weak first line may well be forgiven by the browsing reader if the rest of the first scene delivers on the tension. I know we live in the sound bite generation, but even today most potential readers will skim at least a couple of pages before deciding (or at least that's been my observation in bookshops).

So I think that when thinking about your opening it's more important to think about the first scene and the reader hook holistically rather than just focusing on the first line. If you can pull of a brilliant opening the first line should take care of itself.

And of course concentrating on the scene should help with avoiding first lines that are supposed to be hooky but come off as contrived. I'm sure we've all seen some of those before now.

But all this is by the by. How do we make our opening scenes hook the reader?

Well I've come across several suggestion - all of which can work solely or in combination.

  1. Open with a bang. Many thrillers do this literally. They open with someone in mortal danger. The theory is it hooks you, because you want to know if the person lives or dies. However you have to make the reader care you have to get them to empathise very quickly. If they don't they won't be anxious and will shut the book. But if you do it too well then kill said character they may be disgusted and shut the book instead of reading on to find out who did it. It's even worse if the dust cover tells you the person dies. It makes it hard to get attached if I know the outcome (for me anyway - people's reactions vary).
  2. Open in a moment of change. The theory here is that change, even good change makes us anxious and so opening a story in a moment of transition will hook the reader. Of course again this depends on building empathy for the viewpoint character. If you don't why would they feel anxious about the change in the character's life?
  3. Open in a moment of unease. Maybe nothing changes per se, but the character still feels uneasy about something. This should also hook the reader for similar reasons to points 1 and 2.
  4. One of the most common pieces of first line advice is to give the reader a question to ask. Make the reader read on to find the answers. This is good, but as I said it only works if you follow through on it.
In fact most pieces of advice I've read about about opening scenes involves getting the reader to empathise with the character. Give the reader someone they can care about and something to care about and write it well, and they'll read on to find out what happens. Even with the question raising one the reader isn't going to stick around to find the answers if they don't care about the characters. It's characters that make us care. Which makes sense in the end, but like most things it's easier said than done. It's all about practice, practice and more practice like any art.


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