The Opening Scene
we are at the opening scene, and here's the thing. In a lot of writing workshops, you might think, Listen, that where we start No, we've finally come up to that place where we are, in fact, about to step onto the page. That is actually truly this beginning of the second half of your story were stepping onto page one and you might say, OK, well, given all of that and some of you may have changed What? Your plot problem it. So the question is, where is that? I am not sure where Page one is like like, where do you begin? And writers will often really struggle with that. And and the irony is, irony is when they go, I don't want to do all this pre work. It feels like pre work. I'm not gonna do. I want to start on page one. They'll end up rating all of this stuff that you just did accept the right it and just be a bunch of things that happened. And then we'll get up in something will finally happen. And someone ago Well, this might have some potential, but it starts over here, so you would h...
ave done the work anyway, although not is focused. So the question is, where does your novel started? And the answer is it starts at the point when your plot problem forces your protagonist to take action. They've got to take action now. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to take big giant action. It's not necessarily that place was like, Okay, now they've taken action. There's no turning back. There's no they can't stop. Certainly that happens at a certain point here. They might still be able to, but, you know, because of the way that they're going, that this is that first domino going over that is propelling them toward this. This problem they're not gonna be able to extricate themselves from it could be a simple as I think about, you know, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. When you think about the first scene, this is the scene you are going to rewrite more than any other seen in your novel. You will rewrite this over and over and over, and I don't mean rewrite necessarily from scratch, like let me throw this out all right. Something else. I mean, it will get deeper and deeper and deeper because the seeds of everything that is going to happen are going to be planted right here in that opening seems fine at U. C. L. A. Teaching the Writer's Program of extension writer's program. They have, like Instructor, Retreat Every year and we'll get together. We'll talk about what you do, like what you're, you know, exercises that you do have. How does that work? And one guy one year had this really great exercise. I really liked it, he said. What I do is I have students read on camera was the first chapter, the first page of The Great Gatsby, and I say, OK, how many seeds of what's to come? Do you think are planted here? And they're smart people. So they go, you know, 34 maybe they point them out. And then he'd show all 25 because it's all planted that now that's a hard exercise to Dio. Unless you've just read The Great Gatsby, because who would know? You have to? Doesn't you have to read it to know what they are? Or else you think we're making it up? So my advice at home and to you guys at home and to you here is to take whatever book you've just read, novel and loved or what you're reading. Now if you really like it and as soon as you give, have just read it, though. As soon as you get to the end, go back and re read the first chapter and you will read very differently to you because you will see how everything that played forward was planted right there in that opening. So you don't notice in the opening scene. It's giving you. It's setting up expectations. You don't know what's actually coming until you get to the end. So again, this is a scene and also kind of last thing on this level. It doesn't mean that there might not be. As you go forward, you might not go at some point. Well, wait a minute. Maybe my novel starts a little bit later than I thought, and I'll move it over here or wait a minute. Maybe it starts a bit earlier. Again, I can't say this strongly enough. It can change. It can shift, but it'll change from something that you knew to something else, and you understand why that change is coming and usually doesn't change too much. So when you're writing that opening scene and you know what it ISS therefore things that the reader needs to know in the very first thing, therefore, things that we are wired to look for and hunt for that will allow us to relax into the novel that will allow us to go. Okay, I get it. This writer has authority. I'm going to do that with that. That thing that they do in trust exercises where you climb up on the top of the ladder, fall back into a group of people. It's like it makes you feel like that. It's like, Got it. We're not thinking of these things consciously, but this is what we're looking for. The first is you want to give us a glimpse of the big picture. You want to let us know where it's going, a mistake that writers make all the time. Another myth is holding back for a big reveal later, it will lure the reader in, and that's not what happens, because what writers do is they withhold the very information that would lure a sin. And when you're being vague and often when you hold information back, your protagonist can't think about what they would think about. Because if they did, it would give it away. The next thing we want to know. Second thing is, whose story is it? Because we know intuitively that that's what's gonna give the story, Meaning that's where the urgency is gonna come from. Is this person gonna get what they want? Are they gonna be harmed? What's gonna happen? So you want to give us the protagonist, hopefully on the very first page, because here's the thing. If you don't and you go, I'm giving you some other character. But the protagonist is going to saunter in, you know, in Chapter two, the reader is going to assume this person, just protagonist, because that's who were meeting. So if possible, you really want to either give us the protagonist or let people be talking about them enough so that we know that Wait, it's that person's story we wanted whose story it is. The next thing that we want to know is what's happening here. What's going on, which means that something needs to be happening. We don't want to start with, remember, is an agent There was one week where every single manuscript that came in began with a description of the weather. Like for pages. It was like something in the water like, Why don't do that? Because we don't care. You have to make us care first, plunge us into the story. Something needs to be happening, but you don't want it merely to be action, because that is a big mistake. That writers make, though plunges into action and it'll be just be a thing that's happening. But we have no reason to care about it. Even though you know the protagonist might be in a stage. Coach is about to go off a cliff, going as well give it. So what? Why should I care? And the reason that we would care is because of what's at stake for the protagonist and why it matters to them. It's not just about dying, but it's about why dying at this moment is the thing that is really going to trouble the protagonist. Why does it matter to them? And this is where to be very clear. This is where back story comes onto the page and becomes the most potent layer of story. Not because you is the writer are gonna going to step onto the page, uncle. By the way, this stage coach might go off a cliff. And here's why. It's really bad for the protagonist you're gonna tell us we're going to be in the protagonists had as she struggles with what's happening. In a great example of this is the first chapter of Caroline Leavitt who's a novelist. You may know that she's been about 12 novels. Ah, couple were Times Bestseller. Her, uh, her novel, which at this moment is her most recent novel that she's working on another one right now is cruel, beautiful world. And here's the first sentence of Cruel, Beautiful world. 1969. Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on the last day of school, a June morning shining with Heat. Lucy 16 By the way, So that's the opening line. This chapter, believe it or not, is 30 three pages long. The end of the chapter she actually gets in the car goes with William, so it spanned in real time, like the school day. That's it. But what we get in the chapter is all of her relevant backstory. Why this, Caroline? Just here's what you need to know about Lucy to care about this. Of course not because Lucy is doing that thing that we all dio. She's trying to rationalize away something that is impossible to rationalize away. So what your job is now, which is to write that first scene Rule one is to write ugly. And by that I mean don't polish. By that, I mean, it's not about the rating. You can't write beautiful until you write ugly first. And when I say right ugly, I don't mean right about ugly things or really right super poorly. I mean, you're digging down simply to find where the meaning is. So do not worry about polishing. Don't polish it, because if you do, it will become a darling, and it would be really hard to get rid off once Once you realize that, maybe that isn't where you want to go, and the other rulers be really means your protagonist. Be really mean, be really mean because as um was it, was it Emily Dickinson who said the wounded deer leaps the highest? You've got to be mean because that is what's going toe forced them to dig deep and make this change. And writers often pull punches because they love their protagonists. They're nice. They figured out all the why they know their mis believing. They feel sort of sorry for them because of that. Be me be mean and I don't just be mean, like punch hit kick. I mean, mean like mortify. Embarrass the worst thing. Think of the worst thing you could do to them and then make it worse. But not the worst thing from out here, because when people want to do worse things, they kill their mother. That's what they always dio will make the mother die. Even it has nothing to do with this story. Dig in your stories backyard and figure out, given who they are, what they want, what is the most painful thing that could happen and then go for that Be always hurt the one you love