Your Opening Scene


by Marissa Graff

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.

Happy writing,

Marissa

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