Recently, I asked fellow writers what advice they’d been given from other sources concerning opening scenes and what not to do. I’d like to share what they told me and offer my opinions on those “rules.”
The very first rule mentioned was to never start a novel with the weather. I can think of two reasons someone might make this suggestion: 1) the author is using a conversation between characters to provide information about the weather which isn’t necessary to the plot and, therefore, leaves the opening dialogue mundane and stilted; and 2) opening with the weather is a bit overused.
However, what if I’m the writer of a novel about a community of people overcoming the aftermath of terrible tornadoes such as the ones that devastated Oklahoma? Note, my carefully chosen description. The novel is about the aftermath, but in order to connect the reader to the story and to grab his attention, I can’t think of any better way than to open with an approaching storm. If the writing is engaging, and keeps an editor or agent turning the page, I don’t believe many editors or agents would toss the book aside because it opens with weather.
The second rule mentioned was a dream. I classify this with the “overdone” issue as well. Many writers try to use a dream sequence to tell back story. So, an author who opens with this type of scene actually has the reader in the past before the story ever moves forward.
Again, there could be exceptions to this rule: a young adult or middle grade novel in which a child’s dreams take them to places where danger and adventure await, but the child soon learns that his dreams are reality—two separate planes of existence. I know an author who has such a novel, and the dream lulled me right into his story.
The third one is going to have everyone nodding their head in agreement: don’t open a novel with a mundane sentence or opening. Well, yeah, most often you want to grab the reader’s attention. et, there are exceptions to this rule. What if the intent of the author is to set the mood for a character’s seemingly mundane existence? Everything appears normal. Nothing is out of place, but little hints begin to crop up that not all is as it appears. Something’s terribly wrong. Let’s say, for instance, our mundane character is actually a psychotic serial killer. When the story opens, he’s smiling and cajoling his wife who seems to be on edge. It’s best to let the reader see the mundane and slowly show that the wife the man is cajoling isn’t his wife at all. She’s his newest victim, and she’s terrified. You get the picture.
The fourth rule mentioned was to avoid unlikeable characters. This one, I’m going to say is true at least 99.75% of the time. An author wants to connect the reader with his characters. However, what if your main character is the psychotic serial killer above. The author wants to connect the reader with “crazy” as soon as possible. That’s part of the conflict. He’s not going to be likeable except to another serial killer, but his character and his actions provide the conflict that pull the reader into his world.
There’s also another instance. What happens if the main character does something unthinkable, something that, in our normal existence, we can’t imagine every doing? The act appalls the reader. Again, this should not be done in most cases, but if the character’s actions result in telling a story of redemption, if all will be made right, if the reader begins to see this character as someone to be pitied, who needs love, who accepts God’s love, then the horrifying act that served to make us draw away, pulls us back toward her, and we begin to connect. One such book is Mother of My Son by Rachel Allord, available now from Pelican Book Group (Harbourlight Books). This technique is masterfully woven into the story.
The last rule we’re going to look at tells us to “never, ever, ever, ever start a novel with back story.” To this rule, I say, “amen.” If a writer cannot figure out a way to layer a key portion of back story into the novel without stopping the front story, a prologue is useful. While prologues are okay, they should be used only when necessary, and they have to be written in such a way that the reader must know what happens from the end of the prologue.
The truth about back story is that it should never look like back story. The character’s past needs to be woven seamlessly through the front story—always moving the novel forward.
Rules, rules, rules. We all hear them; we all dispense them, sometimes without knowing the true reason behind them. In some cases, an agent or editor is one that has heard the rules, and well, a rule is a rule. You’re not going to get past them by breaking something they hold sacred—even if they don’t understand why it should be held that way.
The decision for the author, when editing his book, is to determine if the opening scene they have utilized fits the necessity of the novel. If so, and if done correctly, there is an agent or an editor out there waiting to read and acquire his work.
Feel free to share any “rules” about opening scenes that you may have heard.
And happy editing.