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Monday, July 23, 2012

Engaging Openings

You hear a lot about having "a gripping opening" and beginning your novel with a fast-paced sequence. And, well, I'm not impressed.

Ursula K LeGuin in Steering the Craft stated that most novelists begin their story three chapters too soon, and I admit I've seen several novels with what my instructors have called "throat-clearing."  It's what you say before you really begin to tell your story.

But the current trend of beginning with an action sequence isn't the answer to "throat-clearing." Not every novel in every genre needs to begin with your main character battling a werewolf or an explosion ripping through a warehouse. So let's stop and think about what an opening needs to accomplish.

Most people will tell you that your story needs to begin as close as possible to the inciting action of the story, the moment after which nothing can be the same again. I don't agree. Let's pretend for a minute. Let's pretend the inciting incident is important, but not as important as knowing the significance of the inciting incident when it happens.

What would that mean? It would mean we trust Blake Snyder in Save The Cat: first we need to know why life for the main character can't stay the way it is. That, as Snyder says, "to remain here is death."

Your main character won't know that at first. Your main character won't suspect that not only will everything be shaken up soon, but also that it needs to be shaken up. That's because your main character isn't aware of his or her "hidden need" (as Amy Deardon says in The Story Template) but you, the writer, will be aware of this hidden need, and you're going to have to establish it in the opening.

Your main character is perfectly happy as an assistant pig-keeper, or your main character is eeking out an existence in an overcrowded colony of rabbits, bullied by the Chief Rabbit's special police. But although the characters are settled in the way things are, you're establishing, word by word, that things mustn't stay the same.

Snyder has the inciting incident taking place almost ten percent into the story. Deardon has it happening earlier, but still after the main character's introduction. So, take some time. Don't spend three chapters telling us how your main character learned to shoot when she was seven years old, but also don't drop us into a scene where she turns around and shoots five men in an alley.

The problem with these action openings is that we don't know whom to root for. We don't know why it's important.

But back up a bit. Your opening needs to establish who your main character is. Yes, I know there are novels which don't begin with the main character, but let's just ignore that for now. For most of us, the opening chapter needs to establish the main character and why she's important. Not important in the world: important to us. 

My agent and I struggled with the opening of my WIP. A first scene with the inciting incident left readers with a bunch of who-cares people being accosted by an angry client. Um, okay. I added a chapter before that where I carefully established the main character's hidden needs, and my agent fell asleep before page three. I lopped off the first three pages and opened with an interesting sequence, and it still wasn't working. My agent (who deserves combat pay) suggested a crisis for the opening, but it felt too much like a red herring because it would never come up again. (Which is another problem with action openings: if your MC shoots a bandit in scene one and then gets recruited to hunt vampires, never to encounter a bandit again, it's rather unsettling.)

I turned to my much-abused critique partner, who after three versions of the opening scene said, "But I don't care."

Ah. People in three surrounding counties may have thought it was a freak lightning storm, but it was an actual lightbulb going off over my head.  I sat down with the opening and told my main character to talk. Just talk. Enough with the tight writing and trying to get to the main action as soon as possible. Just talk to me.

Talk she did. My MC talked about birthday gifts and calendars and her grandmother's thimble collection, and after an additional five hundred words of padding, out came the thing she needed to say. Her hidden need expressed in one sentence, one concrete longing: she wished that just once, when she came home from work, she'd find a note from her grandmother that she'd put a leftover chicken drumstick and mashed potatoes in her fridge.

I deleted the thimbles and the birthday gifts and the calendars and kept some of the other things, but there on the front page is my character's longing to be nurtured, to be accepted. 

I passed it along to my second crit partner, who said, "This is awesome, and I can tell she's afraid of failure, but how does she define success?"  Second lightbulb moment.  

I passed the new revised fiftieth attempt back to my agent, who said (sweet relief) she really liked it now.

Days later, Kristin Nelson wrote about action openings versus active openings, and I felt vindicated. It's not about action. It's about engagement. It's about giving us someone to care for and then putting her in a situation where we can care about what she's up against.


Jane Lebak's first novel The Wrong Enemy (originally titled The Guardian) will be re-released this September by MuseItUp Publishing! She is also the author of Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.


Rusty Fairbanks said...

I can't tell if it was Ursula LeGuin or Jane Lebak who has/had that fabuous agent - but if she'd be willing to take on another writer/client, I want her!

Jane Lebak said...

It would be Jane Lebak who has the fabulous agent, although I'm sure Ursula K LeGuin's agent was also quite fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Great comments, Jane and so true. I'm taking another look at my WIP. Thanks!

Mart Ramirez said...

Great tips, Jane. I'm a HUGE Save The Cat Fan.

Jackie Layton said...

I can't tell you how happy I am to have read this!


AJ Sikes said...

This is like refined gold. Thank you so much for writing these thoughts down and sharing them. I now feel infinitely better about the beginning of my WIP. And how to fix it.

James Scott Bell said...

Jane, very well said. This is one of the reasons I advocate "sprinkling" in backstory in the opening chapters. I have a rule of thumb for newbies: 3 sentences of backstory in the first 10 pages (either spread out or all together). 3 paragraphs in the next 10 (spread out or all together). I spotted this being done repeatedly by Koontz and King, and those boys are about to break out.

Nice post.

Jane Lebak said...

Thank you, Mr. Bell! I like "sprinkling" but never quantified it the way you did with the three sentences/10 pages approach. I may have inadvertently hit that target, though. I'll take a look on the next editorial pass.

tlbodine said...

Dude, yes. This has been bothering me so much. I don't know how many first pages I've critiqued lately that all suffered from this problem. We have to *care* before anything else matters.

Jeanne Lowery Meeks said...

Thanks for the new way to look at the opening. I understand "engagement" much better than "action" in a cozy mystery.

Unknown said...

Maybe 3rd time's the charm? That makes sense to me. Light bulb moment. Thanks, Jane.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Awesome post, Jane. I had to joliprint it for more study! :-D (And you keep mentioning Save the Cat, so I also ordered a copy of that.)

Unknown said...

Needed this rift now! Thanks. It's awesome. I am looking for those light bulbs.