The Walk On

by Julie, enjoying moderate weather in Somerville, though still getting used to Daylight Saving Time (which she wished either didn’t happen or was permanent)

I plot my books thoroughly before I start writing them. It can take me up to a month to figure out all of the scenes, the transitions, subplots. I also need to make sure everyone is in the book, and that any story arc that came from a previous book or is moving on to the next has enough juice in it to matter. All of these are the writer activities I employ.

The importance of that first scene when you character walks on

I’ve begun to think of every scene in my book as a small play, so I show the action rather than describing it, and then I go back and layer in the physicality and the details. Even though I know what I want to happen in the first scene, getting there takes me several tries. I want readers of previous books to think to themselves “hi Lilly”. But I also want folks who are new to the series to be introduced to the town and the people so they are grounded in the story from the beginning. The challenge with that is that I need to set up a scene where Lilly shows that she is a town matriarch, has a strong character and even stronger opinions. Though I had plotted the scene for the beginning of the third as yet untitled Garden Squad book, this one took a few tries to get it right.

My wrestling made me consider other opening scenes, and start to critique them. I’ve been focusing on new to me stories, movies, and television shows and how they introduce the reader or the viewer to the world and to the story. In most stories you have a moment or two of what the world is like before the inciting incident that drives the drama forward.

But there are other stories, and I’m thinking about Russian Doll on Netflix, where the first scene sets you up with the not normal right away. I watched some old Hart to Hart movies, made after the TV show, this week. They introduced the story and the characters as a stand alone, but if you knew the old series you understood another layer. I love watching Columbo opening scenes, because they show you the murder that you can’t imagine anyone would be able to figure out.

So now I’m fascinated with first scenes. How do they set up the story? Do they compel me to keep reading or watching? Do they set up questions that I want answered?

Any preferences out there? Do you like the first scenes in a book or movie to get you right into the action, or do you want a set up first? Do you have expectations when you are reading a book in a series that you are going to catch up with folks first?

Any favorite opening scenes?

22 Thoughts

  1. In a continuing series, I don’t expect to be caught up in the first scene, but over the first three or four scenes, I’d say. I do think the opening is so important. Something has to happen to draw you in.

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  2. Lucy Burdette and I just taught a class in the First Five Pages at the Studios of Key West. We focused on character, setting, story hooks, opening lines, and voice (including Point of View.) It was a fun class to give and the student work, which crossed all genres, was fascinating.

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  3. It depends on the story and the writing. I started book three, All Murders Final!, with the murder in the opening scene. It’s the only time I’ve done that. There has to be some hint of action to come. In the first book, Tagged for Death, Sarah here’s a gun shot through her phone in the opening line. The reader knows that’s not good. So, I don’t have a preference in my writing or reading.

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  4. It really depends on the type of book and whether or not I’m reading the first. If it’s a “softer” book, like a cozy, I expect there will be some warm up. A book like a procedural is more likely to drop me right in the middle of action (although i suppose the first scenes of ROOT are more warm up – although the message that something is *not right* is certainly there).

    If I’m reading a book in the middle of the series, I, like Edith, don’t expect to be caught up at the end of the first scene, but I should be fairly well grounded by the end of the first chapter, maybe the first three chapters. Although there might be little things later, but they should not impede my understand.

    But whatever kind of book, yes, something has to happen to draw you into the story. Could be a dead body, could be something said that hints at trouble to come.

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  5. I always think of the opening scene in Rebecca. You have no idea what is coming, but you get the sense right away that something momentous happened. Slowly, it is all revealed, but you are hooked right away.

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  6. I’m okay with a bit more action in a movie or TV opening scene. But I find I like to ease into it a bit in a book. Yes, there needs to be some conflict in that first scene, but I like a few moments to get into (or back into) the world of the book and the character’s lives.

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  7. Hi Julia,

    I’m still scrolling through my mental card file of opening scenes in novels I love, so I’ll probably weigh in later with a response on that (although I doubt I could beat the opening scene of Rebecca, and it’s opening line is probably only topped by “Call me Ismael.”).

    However, I’m intrigued by something else you said. You said “I show the action, rather than describing it,” and I’m not sure I understand what you meant by that. Could you define that a bit more, please?

    As for the discussion about having the luxury of “grabbing the reader” with several scenes in a mid-series book, I’m consumed with envy for those of you who have to cope with the “mid-series” problems. 🙂

    I’ve always liked openings which engage by (at least briefly) withholding information. My first stab at an opening for my book (about 472 rewrites ago) had my protagonist opening her shop for the day. It was full of rich and lovely descriptions of the shop and told you a lot about the protagonist and her live through those descriptions. It was absolutely beautiful writing … and boring as all get out.

    After many, many changes my opening now begins exclusively with dialogue (like your play analogy, Julia) and consists of an argument with a dissatisfied (and unreasonable) customer and my protagonist. It establishes everything that was done in the original scene, but (IMHO) it does a much better job of grabbing the reader’s attention because they want to know what the argument is about, who and where the two people are, and which one is right. And they have to read almost a page to find all of that out. By that time (again, IMHO), I’ve got ’em.

    And that lovely thing about that approach is that, even though (as I’ve noted here) I’ve switched back and forth between 1st and 3rd person narration multiple times, because it’s all dialog, I’ve never had to change that first scene (at least for that reason).

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    1. You mentioned what I was trying to say later in your post. Instead of saying “Lilly Jayne didn’t tolerate rude people” I have her meeting a rude person (who, BTW, is the victim to be) and reacting to him. I start with a lot of dialogue and add on descriptions later, only when I need them. Does that make sense?

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  8. For me the opening is all about provoking curiosity. If I am not curious I am not going to invest my time or energy in the book. That being said, the book doesn’t need to make me curious about the largest matters in life. Often I prefer books that make me curious about the p.o.v. characters and the way they see the world.

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  9. I don’t mind if the author sets the scene the first chapter or so. I do expect a mystery in my mysteries. I’ve dropped books that seemed to be just telling a nice friends and family in the village story. There are plenty of books that do that and still have a good mystery plot like all the Wickeds.

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  10. Since I write lighter series, I do like to ease readers into the setting, the situation, and the main characters. BUT I make sure to end every chapter with an “uh oh.” My murders generally come later because I like to create the character of the victim (although my current book, MARDI GRAS MURDER, does have a John Doe on the first page!), but since it takes me a bit longer to get to that, the early chapters may need “uh ohs” even more than later chapters, where you can get away with the occasional softer chapter ending.

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  11. For me, the opening should ground the reader with enough detail to actually know what is happening and get a sense of what is important. At the same time, I want the opening to pose questions to keep the reader engaged and guessing. This is exactly what I’m struggling with in my current manuscript!

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