Friday, July 8, 2011

Day 7: Writing Your First Scenes

I was a little weirded out when I read the "Write Your Novel in 30 Days" calendar and saw day seven's message:  "Congratulations!  You should now be done with the first 25% of your novel."  Weirded out might be too tame a description; more like, "What the heck!?  You never even told me to start writing the first scene!"  

Despite being a fan of WYNITD, I politely request that you submit to my will and rise up in rebellion against "the (writer's digest) man."  Defy their expectations and begin your 30 day challenge today!

Ahem.  Calming down now.

DAY ONE (or seven if you just HAVE to follow the rules):  the day you begin to write!  Are you ready for this?  Ideally the previous six days have prepared you so well for this moment that you are beyond all fear of the 'staring-at-a-blank-screen-for-hours' syndrome.  You should already have your first line figured out (and likely a line or two further) and you should already have some kind of an outline prepared, however rough it may be.  Now let's talk about how to begin a story.

1. Timing.  You have only one opportunity to hook your reader and get them interested in the story.  Will they be interested watching a character going through their very ordinary morning ritual?  Does this ritual have any hint of the future problems our character will face?  If not, why would a reader waste their time when they can pick up a book that begins with a dead priest in the Louvre who has left behind a coded message in his own blood?  (I'm talking The Da Vinci Code here).

When beginning your story you want to start in medias res, or "in the middle of things."  Typically this means beginning with an "inciting incident" - an occurrence which forces a reaction from your protagonist - and NOT with a lot of backstory explaining how your character came to be a depressed, neurotic coffee shop owner (that comes later).  You want your reader to be engaged from the get go, so start with action; not necessarily a car chase scene, but whatever event it is that sets your character (and thus the story) in motion.

I could give you endless examples of wonderful inciting incidences, but you may prefer seeing a list of the kinds of story openers literary agents hate.  

2. The Proper Introduction.  Readers are a lot like baby ducks (or Jacob the werewolf, if that's more your thing).  They want to imprint on the first person they meet, which means that you, the writer, must introduce your hero/heroine as soon as possible.  Introductions don't mean revealing the birthplace and genealogy of your character, they mean revealing something about your character's personality.  Les Edgerton explains it best in his book Hooked:
"Introduce your reader to your characters by showing the characters’ reactions to the inciting incident. Those reactions reveal and define their personalities, creating a first impression as strong as any in our own lives.  Brevity is key here...  Characters are best revealed by their actions...  For instance, if you feel it important to develop your protagonist’s characterization as a skinflint, don’t give some long, drawn-out tale of him pinching pennies as a youngster, or (worse!) tell the reader he’s a miserable miser.  Instead, in your opening scene, show him doing something miserly within the context of the inciting incident scene. Show him having to transfer two handfuls of hundred-dollar bills to one hand so he can scoop the inside of the coin return of a candy machine for forgotten nickels.  Remember, you don’t have to develop the whole of his characterization in the opening—just the single most important facet—and you should do that briefly and with a telling action." 
3. Foreshadowing.  I recently watched a news clip which analyzed the public's fascination with the Casey Anthony trial and the psychologist said something very interesting.  She mentioned that the trial was "a who-done-it that felt more enjoyable because we thought we knew who-done-it."  So wait, is she saying that people WANT to be able to predict what will happen in a story?  Yes.  Obviously a story which is entirely predictable from beginning to end would be a boring read, but dropping just enough hints to keep the reader guessing will also be what keeps the reader engaged.  In your first few scenes consider foreshadowing the overarching story problem to give readers a flavor for what is to come.

Using the challenge issued by Nancy Kress in the article "Start Your Fiction Off With a Bang," I too ask that you look at your WIP and analyze the opening scenes.
"Does it start with something happening in story time to a major character, which gives us a foretaste of conflicts to come?  If so, congratulate yourself; you're off to a good start.  If not, how can you rewrite?  Some suggestions:
  • Start the story later in the plot. Pick an exciting scene that meets the four criteria, write that as your opening, and then drop back to your original opening as flashback about how things reached that exciting event.
  • Switch the order of scenes you already have. If you start with minor characters, put that scene later, and move up a scene with the protagonist. Or put your initial opening into a prologue.
  • If you started with description or exposition, move it to come after the first scene. You even may find that you don't have to explain so much once we've had some of the information demonstrated for us via action."
*Day by day assignments and worksheets given during the 30 day challenge come from the Writer's Digest manual "Write Your Novel in 30 Days."  Click here to purchase it!

MY DAY 7:  Today I started working on my actual manuscript and was really excited by the progress.  Too often I've begun my story and worked my way into the first few pages of it before finding I hated it or that something needed to be changed.  This time I hearkened to the advice in the WYNITD's booklet to "work as if," meaning to avoid going back and correcting by jotting down my ideas in a notebook.  For example, if I decide I want to change my character's profession I don't have to spend a lot of time going back and fixing every page which mentions the profession.  Instead I can make a note detailing what page I was on when the new profession idea struck me, then write the rest of the book "as if" the beginning already reflected the change.

1 comment:

  1. I hope it goes well for you. Those challenges are difficult for me to meet with my work schedule. That is, the work schedule outside of writing. I feel like I have 2 full-time jobs!