Writing Pitfall #1: Lackluster Opening Scenes
Write Divas is pleased to present our twelve-part series, Writing Pitfalls for First Time Authors. In this series, the Divas will pinpoint the most common writing “mistakes” that will mark you as a first time author and help you avoid these pitfalls like a seasoned pro.
It was a dark, mundane, terribly clichéd, and stormy night…
Opening scenes. What’s their purpose and why do they matter?
I have to admit that I kind of love this topic. It’s something that I often discuss with authors. Invariably, the questions come: What do you mean my opening is boring? (Take a deep breath. I promise everything will be okay.) Overwhelming amounts of backstory cripples pacing? (Yes, it does, darlin’.) It’s not mundane detail if it sets the scene, right? (Wrong.)
But, so what if your opening is dull. The rest of your novel is awesomesauce!
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your novel is. A lackluster opening will prevent all but the most intrepid readers from discovering those hidden gems of brilliance. The purpose of an opening scene is to draw the reader in. Never forget this. Your goal should be to write in such a way that your readers are invested in the story from the first paragraph. Your opening scene should intrigue, inform, excite, and entertain.
The truth is that people judge books by their covers and the worth of a story by the first chapter. This means, depending on how verbose you are, that you have roughly fifteen double-spaced pages to capture a reader’s interest—and even less if you are dealing with an acquisitions editor or an agent. In our modern, fast paced society time is at a premium. This has created a market in which readers (and publishing professionals) no longer have the patience to read page after page of pretentious prose, rambling narrative, and superfluous content.
Readers think of your first chapter as a preview of your entire book. This means if your first chapter is slow, boring and full of irrelevant detail, they will assume that the rest of your book is similar. So, let’s put our best foot forward by exorcising the following scene-destroying gremlins.
Backstory: The Seventh Circle of Literary Hell
So, you have a character with a complicated backstory. It makes sense to condense her life and tell it to your readers. After all, they need to understand your character’s past and motivations. They won’t accept the fact that she is a snarky commitment phobe unless you tell them about all the events that made her that way, right? RIGHT?
Characterization is absolute. Authors do not have to make excuses for a character’s behavior, perceptions, or past. Beyond this, your readers do not need to know that Mary Sue is a middle child who has six brothers. They also don’t need to know that she was born in 1976 in Neenah, WI, has a birthmark on her inner thigh, is allergic to gold, hates broccoli, or that she lost her virginity in the back of an old Monte Carlo when she was sixteen. At least they don’t need to know it in the first chapter.
Yes, I know you have created a huge backstory for your characters, have imagined each day of their lives in blazing Technicolor, and are dying to share every detail. In fact, it’s especially tempting to relate all of this information in the beginning of the story.
(Really, don’t do it.)
Instead, open OneNote, or whatever program you have that is comparable, and whiteboard your characters. Map out their past to your heart’s content, but don’t use more than 10% of this in the entirety your novel. Such restriction will help limit you to the backstory that is most relevant to the plot.
Backstory is like a thick peanut butter sandwich. If you give your readers too big of a bite, they’ll choke. Give pertinent information in small, creative doses. Then spread those doses throughout the story. Relate the information to your readers when they need it and only give them the detail that they need. Resist the urge to over share.
Over-description: Because There’s No Room in My Imagination for Yours
Description is about balance. The old adage is true. Less is more. The goal of description is to provide just enough so the reader understands the general appearance of a character or thing, but not so much it prevents them from filling in the blanks. Do not litter your opening scene (in fact all of your scenes) with paragraph after paragraph of character and setting descriptions.
If an author over-describes and leaves nothing to implication and interpretation, they have essentially imprisoned their audience—created a passive reader instead of an active one. In this instance a “captive audience” is a very bad thing. Should readers see the world you’ve created only as you envision it? Should they think about that world and its characters only as you think about them?
The answers is a resounding no.
The creative scope of writing does not begin or end with you, the author. If your readers aren’t inspired in a creative manner by your words, you are doing something wrong. It is imperative to tease a reader’s imagination, not overwhelm it.
Over-describing scenes and characters can lead to misdirection. Misdirection is not a bad thing when an author uses it purposefully, but when it is the result of unnecessary description, it can kill a scene. Focus on seemingly innocuous elements in the story is a subtle form of communication between the author and the reader that says, pay attention to this! Implication is a powerful tool. Use it to your advantage. Don’t waste your words by directing your readers’ attention to inane things.
Finally, over-description can wreak havoc with the pacing and overall flow of the story. It creates narrative that is difficult, if not impossible, to read. Not only is over-description a novice mistake, but it gives readers the impression that you do not trust them or yourself.
Unfocused Writing: What Do You Mean I’m Easily Distract—Oooh! Pretty…
Tangents are interruptions in a scene that distract the reader with extraneous information that does not further the plot. This can cause an issue where the nonessential information is recalled by the reader instead of the information that is crucial to the scene. When this happens, authors often remind their readers of what is really important through repetitive action and dialogue instead of removing the tangent. Not only is this annoying, but it lends a queasy feel to the story’s flow because the author is dragging their readers around in circles.
Tangents can be either showing or telling, but both are undesirable.
Don’t indulge. More often than not, the information provided in these bunny trails is extraneous and will either confuse the scene or slow the pacing to such a degree that it makes slogging through the story tedious. Your readers do not need a mini history lesson on the Alamo just because your protagonist mentioned visiting it when she was eight. Nor do they need to know the provenance of the heirloom necklace the protagonist is wearing—unless the necklace and its history are important to the plot.
Mundane Detail: I’m Sorry I Fell Asleep. Were You Saying Something Important?
The primary issue with mundane content is that it’s boring. True, it’s real life, but do you read fiction to get a dose of reality? Seriously? Why would you want to start a novel about kidnapping with the protagonist walking his dog? Instead open your book with an action packed abduction. Is it necessary to write paragraph after paragraph about Sally brushing her hair and dressing for her upcoming date? Why not open the scene with Sally on her date?
The humdrum details of everyday life have no place in your novel, and especially not in the beginning. Cut scenes that don’t further the plot or the readers’ understanding of a character.
Mundane detail is often paired with an opening scene that precedes the plot’s catalyst by pages, if not chapters. This combination makes for a doubly dull opening, which leads me to the final culprit.
Scenes That Open Too Early: Lights! Camera! No Action???
When writing the opening scene of your book, skip the setup and jump right into the middle of something exciting. Your readers will thank you for it.
So how do you choose where to start your story? Well, ask yourself what pivotal scene launches your main character’s journey. Start with that scene.
Imagine that you are writing a book about a girl who wakes in the hospital after a horrific traffic accident. She has no memory of her past and the ability to read minds. In the course of the story it becomes clear that someone is trying to murder her. Where do you start this story?
- The accident
- The hospital
- The protagonist begging her mother to let her drive the car
- The protagonist rushing to her vehicle because she has the feeling she’s being followed
- The protagonist sitting at the kitchen table eating cereal and staring off into space
- Write one of the opening scenes from above.
- Leave out all backstory, tangents, and mundane detail. Begin your story at the pivotal moment that sets the character on her journey and make it meaningful or exciting.
- Please share your results in the comment section below.
Mundane detail, backstory, and extraneous content are the literary “suckers” that sap strength and direction from your opening scene. Instead of producing meaningful content, your creative energy is used to craft filler. When filler becomes a reader’s first impression of your story, it is a tragedy indeed.
Your opening scene will determine whether your manuscript is read by an agent or sent to the slush pile for an intern to read. Whether you’re self-publishing or following a traditional route, you have a limited number of words to make an impression. Make a difference with an opening scene that sells instead of hinders.
Next Article in the Writing Pitfalls Series: Writing Pitfall #2: Prologues and Epilogues