Tuesday, August 21, 2012

23 5 Reasons Why Your Opening Scene is Like a Blind Date

If you’ve ever been out on a blind date or watched a reality dating show, you know a lot can go wrong on a first date. The entire tone can change in the blink of an eye. That’s what makes crafting the beginning of your novel like going out on a first date. Where should you take your story? Should you be yourself, or try and be something you’re not? How much do you reveal about your past?

Let’s talk tips to avoid dating writing disaster.

Tip #1: First impressions do matter. That’s why the first lines of so many novels are famous. Lines like, “It was a dark and stormy night,” or “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much,” stay with the reader. Think about a powerful opening, but move into the scene. Put the reader in your world and into your protagonist’s shoes as quickly as you can. Keep in mind that the first line may be something you go back to craft when you’re story is entirely written.

Tip #2: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. In the dating world, this means not airing all your dirty laundry on the first date (divorce, jail time, how you secretly want a unicorn, etc.). In the writing world, this means easing your reader in slowly. Once you lay down your first line(s), your reader needs time to orient themselves. Create a sense of normalcy for that character, even if normal is abnormal in their world. In Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now, the protagonist’s home life is tense and abusive. But the reader is guided into that world with less-obvious clues. Schmidt saves the biggest “bang” of the abuse his protagonist has suffered until much later in the novel.

Tip #3: Land a second date. When you watch a dating reality show, you know the moment a train wreck has left the station. Don’t make your protag the train wreck. Sure, it’s not always easy to create a likable protagonist and you want them to have flaws. But avoid having them come off as mopey, whiny, angry, etc. Readers don’t want to read about an unlikable, self-pitying protagonist. Even if your character is a mean girl like Sam in Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, make the reader care enough to find out what happens next.

Tip #4: Keep some of your cards close to your chest. You might hesitate to meet a blind date at your favorite restaurant or plan something uber-elaborate. The same applies for our purposes. While you want a memorable first scene that makes the reader turn the page, be sure to create a level of energy that you can sustain. That is to say, if your first scene is action-packed and energetic, you’ve set that tone and your reader believes that’s what’s in store for much of the book. If you can’t maintain that level of energy, you’ll likely lose your reader.

Tip #5: Back-and-forth conversation. No one likes being talked at. Readers like a book where you’re laying down world-building and characterization crumbs without a giant info dump. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Readers are smart. They need time to wrestle with these clues and make their own meaning. Too much information, and you’ll scare them off. Too little and they won’t care. Give a little, take a little.

We’d love to hear your ideas for writing successful opening scenes. Chime in to comments. Bonus points if you can create a metaphor that relates to first dates :)

Happy writing,
Marissa

23 comments:

  1. I love #5...

    Yet I couldn't tell you how many crits I've gotten from peers whining about not enough info up front.

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    1. R. Mac, it's funny because I keep hearing this dilemma in recent weeks. It's hard to say what balance works. Books like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo majorly info. dump and people overlook it, while books with too little explanation will lose readers, too.

      Personally, I like to struggle as a reader to figure things out. But not every reader likes that. I guess it depends on the readers comfort level with going in "blindly." Thanks for your comment!

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    2. It seems to me that it depends on if the agent likes your story idea, the way you write, and if you move the story along. The reader will overlook a lot. It's the "gatekeepers" that seem to have the issues with not the first 50 pages, or the first 20 pages, but the first couple of lines. Like they say, they look for a reason to reject.--Sharon

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    3. Hi Sharon! Great point. When you look at books that get reputations for poor writing, but that the public ravages (50 Shades, Twilight, etc.) it's clear that the public doesn't always care. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. Well, if your date happens to be an unicorn lover... ;)

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  3. Great tips. I loved the blind date analogy. Sorry I can't think of anything to add to it.

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    1. Thanks, Natalie! It cracked me up thinking of all the ways they're alike.

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  4. What's wrong with wanting a unicorn? ;) Oh wait, in my story, they're... Well, I won't say, but maybe you're right. LOL!

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  5. Go, Jami! That sounds like a book we can get behind :)

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  6. Great post. Just what I needed as I am about to start a new project.

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  7. Love this analogy--I'll never think about opening scenes the same again :-) In five tips you've touched on hook, backstory, a protagonist you want to root for, writing that holds the reader's interest, and dialogue. Maybe tip 6 could be "don't wear too much perfume"--use sensory details, but don't overpower the writing with them...?

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    1. Kenda, brilliant! What a wonderful point. Overwriting the opening can be deadly. Thanks so much!

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  8. Last November I was at a weekend retreat with SCBWI Western Washington where Arthur Levine built the weekend's critique approach around the concept of the first chapter being like the first date. He began with a talk outlining some of the points you've made here. I suspect you have either heard him talk about this or read about this, or a similar talk he has given. It would be good of you to give him some attribution for this concept. Love this blog and subscribe to it, so I offer this suggestion in friendship.

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    1. Tina, thanks for your suggestion. I wish I could say I'd heard/read about Arthur's talk before. That's a funny coincidence. I think the first date-first chapter analogy is definitely fitting :) Thanks again!

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  9. Oh no, I've had so many really really bad dates in my time (including the guy 20yrs ago that took me to a stip club for a fist date - ewww), I'm just hoping that won't rub off on my first pages!
    Great post.

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    1. Thanks, Charmaine. Wouldn't we like to forget those awful dates? :) Who knows, maybe they served a purpose after all!

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  10. Good stuff, great analogy! Just like dates, you know within the first few minutes whether you can stand to continue. :) It's difficult--and a learned skill--to know how much info to dole out and how much to let the reader figure mull over first.

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    1. Hey, Carol! Isn't it true that it only takes a few minutes? Thanks for popping by!

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  11. The opening line is something you need to take a lot of care with, however. There's a temptation to go for something that is a massive hook, and then fail to follow it up. Damon Knight once said (paraphrasing from memory) that if you've got a great first line then your story starts on the top of page three.

    What I think he was getting at was that a super first line is no substitute for getting smoothly and inevitably into the story. And that you're better of cutting everything before page 3 even if it means losing that great first line. In terms of the blind date, I guess it's like having one great question or comment planned out for your date, but nothing to follow up other than an awkward silence.

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  12. I LOVE this!!!! (hate first dates, but love this!!)

    I'm struggling with re-writng my opening right now, so this was perfect timing for me. Thanks for the reminder to give readers a chance to get acquainted with the MC in the opening.

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