Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Great beginnings are not written by accident. Authors give much thought before crafting that all-important first scene. Some spend hours on the first line.

A novel doesn’t have to start with an Indiana Jones type opener—you know, Indie in the jungle facing dangers in order to return with the artifact, being chased by a boulder and running into natives with spears, but a novel does need to use the Indiana Jones technique.

A great opener is one that causes the reader to ask, “Why?” “How?” and “What in the world?”

Certain scenarios have been said to be the kiss of death for authors. For instances, we’re told that an author should never open a story with weather. Well, if the opening is simply someone looking out the window at a cloudless day, the author would be smart to back away and think again.

Now, if the character lives on a farm in Kansas, and the opening scene involves a gathering of dark, malicious-looking clouds, and one of those clouds just happens to drop a funnel from the sky, and if that character stands in the window and watches the funnel cut a path through his corn field and toward the house, I think the author has started with a great scene.

Also, authors are told never to start a story with a dream. I pretty much agree with this rule. Why? Because a dream is like an internal thought. A dream has the reader in the psyche of a character the reader hasn’t met. Coming out of the dream will jar the reader.

Yet, if I were to write a story about a man who is dreaming about his life and who awakens to find himself the savior of a future world...Oops, already been done, but I have to wonder if any editor ever picked up that story and said, “Oh, no, another novel starting with a dream” before the work got into the hands of an astute editor.

The next scenario is one that every author should note as something to avoid. Never, ever, ever open the story with back story. If the information contained in the back story is so important that it cannot be layered into the plot in small quantities and in a way that the reader will not recognize it as back story, it is possible that the story has been started in the wrong place.

Likewise, information dumps must be avoided at all costs. They’re easy to spot. They start out by telling the reader everything they need to know about the character, their location, their background, etc. The emphasis is on “telling.” Information should unfold in such a way that the reader does not feel “dumped upon.”

Readers should not have to meander through pleasantries about the weather, a dream that means nothing to them, or through back story and information that does nothing but stop the story cold.

There is a reason that the Adventures of Indiana Jones all start with Indiana in a precarious situation, and it demonstrates a very valuable technique when it comes to opening scenes. All novels should start in a place called “in media res.” This means no matter the genre being written, when readers open up to the first page of a novel, they should find themselves in the middle of the action.

Happy editing.

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