Wednesday, 2 April 2014

How to Write the First Scene of Your Novel: Don’t Bore the Reader

The first scene of any novel is arguably the hardest or most crucial part of the story. If that first scene doesn’t grip the reader within its maws, the fickle butterfly that is the reader will just flitter off to another more interesting flower head. For this reason, the first scene as well as the first chapter of my novel will go through more draughts than the rest of the story.

Boring First Scenes in Novels

Tips to Hook the Reader
Personally, I find huge blocks of unbroken paragraphs within the opening of a novel a bit of a turn off. Unless the genre is of a special kind, breaks in paragraphs with speeches, action and a smattering of description might offer more of a visual enticement.

Lots of description can slow the pace and could cost the author a reader. So, avoid too much description. Similarly, avoid too much setting up. I dislike reading several pages only to realize nothing has happened. This causes me to skip the latter pages and then either read the end or not bother reading any more. Bring the action closer to the beginning. Something must happen, questions must present themselves and conflict of some sort must exist within the first page.

Click to have listen to the first scene of A Hard Lesson audiobook. Straight away, we are hurled into action, where questions present themselves and curiosity keeps us listening. Why is Kurt's uncle riled by his nephew? Why is Frank witnessing this event? Is something going on beneath the surface? What is going to happen next?

Grabbing the Reader in Thrillers

I like to think of the first scene to my novel as a good advice to writing a screenplay, that is, to begin opening the scene after it begins, not before it begins. Don’t preamble or spend too much time setting up the scene with descriptions or smalltalk. If the story begins with a gambler losing thousands of pounds, consider beginning the story the moment the gambler sees his horse lose rather than the moment he walks into the betting shop.

Or if the story begins with a car crash, consider opening the story with the moment the passenger realizes the brakes don’t work or sees the driver is under the influence. This might be more enticing than reading about the passenger entering the car before it moves off. Interesting elements such as how this came about can be explored later in the novel.

The Opening Sentence of Novels

Another article on this blog explores inserting unexpected words into a paragraph to make the reader sit up, such as putting slang words within a mix of high-brow words. Other contrasts can be explored such as mixing old with new or putting in swear words where least expected. Another great way of opening the novel is by someone saying something. This might be something controversial, provocative or make the reader ask questions. Examples of this might be:

‘What do you mean you’re not my real dad?’ Kitty could feel the floor tumbling away. The man who was not really her dad merely looked down.

‘Where did you get all that cash?’ Doris asked suspiciously as Felix opened his wallet to pay for the wine. He said he’d been broke, yet a stack of twenties bulged within the leather.

Both openers not only hurl the reader into the action, but causes the reader to ask questions. What were the circumstances of Kitty’s birth? Where is her real dad? Why has Felix got all that money? Why did he lie about being broke? Both situations create curiosity. If the questions are interesting enough, we want to find the answers.

Contrasts in Openers in Novels

Creating contrasts in any form will set up tension in the novel and make the reader want to turn the page. This might be subtext in the body language and what is said. For instance, the character might hate the situation he finds himself in, but has to behave in a certain way. He might know a secret or feels secret resentment towards someone.

I used this contrast in the first scene of my blog novel,Nora (after the prologue). The main character, Nancy feels uncomfortable in the situation she is in, but we are unsure of why. Her friends are drunk and are baiting the pole dancer to give each a birthday kiss. Nearby punters have been driven away by their raucous behaviour and Nancy is anxious she’ll be chucked out of the nightclub. Things are about to get out of control as the remaining crowd chant and stomp their feet. Nancy’s unease causes questions to be asked and we suspect she is about to find herself in an excruciating situation.

Good Openers for Novels

So we can see here, that no words can be wasted on preamble, setting up or descriptions. Don’t bore the reader, create contrasts, tensions and pose questions that will pique the reader’s interest. Begin the scene after it starts rather than before it starts. This will bring interesting elements of the novel nearer to the beginning of the book, rather than page 30. By then, the reader might have taken flight.

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