The Opening Scene
We are at (laughing) the opening scene. And here's the thing. In a lot of writing workshops you might think well isn't that where we start (laughs)? No. We finally come up to that place where we are, in fact, about to step onto the page that is actually truly the beginning of the second half of your story. We're stepping onto page one and you might say okay, given all of that, and some of you may have changed what you plot problem is, so the question is where is that (laughs)? I'm not so sure where page one is. Like, where do you begin? And writers often really struggle with that and the irony is, the irony is when they go, "I don't wanna do all this pre-work," it feels like pre-work, I'm not gonna do it. I want to start on page one. They'll end up writing all of the stuff that you just did except they'll write it and it'll just be a bunch of things that happen and then they'll get up and something'll finally happen and someone'll go, "Well, this might have some potential, but it start...
s "over here (laughs)," so you would have done the work anyway, although not as focused. So the question is where does your novel start? 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 gonna take big, giant action. It's not necessarily that place where it's like, okay now, they've taken action and there's no turning back, they can't stop. Certainly that happens at a certain point. Here, they might still be able to, but you know because it's the way that they're going that this is that first domino going over that is propelling them toward this problem that they're not gonna be able to extricate themselves from. It could be as simple as, think about Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, you know? What does he want? He just wants to be left alone. Leave me alone, I'm gonna live my life. Talk about someone who wants to live their life exactly as they're living it from now until forever and what is that thing that makes him take action? It's just a knock at the door. it's like, Gandalf made that mark on his door and now all these people are coming and Gandalf prides himself on being polite, so he can't not answer the door, what we all would do right now because everyone answers their door, but back then in Hobbitville, you answered the door. And so he answers the door and in come Gandalf and all the dwarves and now there's no out for him at that point. So the point is, sometimes novels do start with a really big bang and sometimes they start a little further behind. There's a great line someone once asked JFK how he became a war hero and he said, "Oh, it was involuntary. "They sank my boat." And that's what you're looking for here, what's gonna sink your protagonist's boat? Let me give you three really quick examples. First is from The Pilot's Wife. It's a literary novel from about a decade ago, I think by Anita Shreve and it opens. I think the opening line of it is, "The doorbell rang. "She heard the doorbell rang and then the dog barked," that's the opening line of that book, kind of (laughs). I'm paraphrasing. It's very close to that. And what's happened is she is Catherine, she's the pilot's wife and there's someone waking her up in the middle of the night and they're about to tell her that her husband is dead, that the commercial plane he was piloting has crashed and he's dead. Now that, talk about knocking someone out of their comfort zone because that is what happens in the beginning. The protagonist gets knocked out of their comfort zone as Bilbo did and the thing about comfort zones that we really misunderstand is that we often think of the comfort zone as something that we like. My comfort zone, it's great! In the morning, I sit in my easy chair and I have coffee and I drink my, and I read the paper, and in the evening I drink wine and I real a novel and I'm comfortable. We don't like our comfort zones (laughs). Comfort zones are the things that we should get pushed out of, which is why we turn to stories and what would it feel like to get shoved out? Bilbo Baggins, it's simple. Much sadder here. What she's about to find out is that her husband wasn't the kind of person who she thought he was. He had a secret life. There was stuff going on. She thought she had her life all together. Turns out, not so. Again, what is it? It is going to be a re-envisioning of what happened in the past, which she is about to dig into and that's gonna change everything for her. So the big thing happens right there in the very beginning, first scene. Gone Girl starts a little bit later, little bit earlier than that. Gone Girl, as you might know is about, talk about a marriage gone bad (laughs). This one sort of takes the cake, but it's about Nick and Amy and it's dual protagonists, but really it's more Nick's story, I think, than Amy's if you want to think about alpha protagonists like who do we care about the most? Whose skin are we in the most? I would venture to say it's more Nick's story than Amy's, but it opens and Nick and Amy are married. And again, over here in the past, these two people have a vastly different notion of what their marriage is (laughs). They could not see things more differently. And it opens on the morning of the fifth wedding anniversary and Nick, as I recall, he has a twin sister named Margo called Go and he's at her restaurant or bar and they're talking and they're talking about the anniversary and what they're gonna do. And he gets a phone call and it turns out that the door's been left open and it looks like there's foul play and Amy is missing. And then very quickly, it starts to look like not only is Amy missing, but he had something to do with it and so that is where that story starts. It takes a bit to get to the place where suddenly he's now being accused of it, but it starts on that morning with the door open, something simple. It builds to it. (mumbles) Go forward, I want to talk about The Goldfinch. The Goldfinch starts even further back, although just one kind of quickly to throw it in, The Goldfinch actually opens with what should be called prologue. It's like, two-and-a-half pages and basically, it's the main character whose name is Theo and he's and he's in, I think, Amsterdam and something really bad has happened and he's sweating bullets because something even worse is about to happen. We don't know what it is at that moment. And then we cut to back when he's 14 years old and that's where it opens, it opens where he's 14. Now what shoves him out of his comfort zone is that he was in Manhattan with his mother, single mother. She is a art historian. He loves her fiercely. His parents are divorced, father's moved. I forget where he's moved at that point. Not there. And he goes to a private and he's gotten in trouble. We never find out exactly what he did like, exactly what it was. But the headmaster has basically said, "You're out of school "today, your mom's gotta come in, "we gotta talk about this." So that's what gonna happen and that means she's gotta miss a day of work and she's not happy about that, but they've got some time to kill (laughs) sadly between the morning and when they go meet the headmaster and what he wants to do, what Theo wants to do is he wants to go have lunch at (mumbles) which is a diner in Manhattan, or breakfast. He's hungry, but his mom, who's this art historian, wants to go over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not to look at a little statue, but to look at a painting, a painting of The Goldfinch that's just there and he doesn't want to do that, but he doesn't tell her no because he wants to be nice, because he feels like oh gosh, you know, she's out because of me. I'll just do what she wants to do. That'll be fine, it's okay. If only he'd ask for what he wanted because what happens is they go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they get separated, a bomb goes off, a terrorist attack, and she's killed and that's what sets everything in motion. He takes this painting, The Goldfinch, and then everything comes from that. Now that is the big thing that happens. Donna Tartt could have opened the book right there with a big, giant explosion, but instead she started further back, but it was still the moment where he's knocked out of his comfort zone. If he had not done whatever he did at school, could she have started it earlier? Yeah, she could have started it when he did whatever he did at school, but she didn't need to. She could cut to the he's already in trouble for that but because of that, if he had not done that, his mom would be alive. Imagine what he's carrying. So it started a little bit before. When you think about the first scene, this is the scene you are going to rewrite more than any other scene 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 and I'll write 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 scene. It's funny, at UCLA where I teach in the Writer's Program, the Extension Writer's Program, they have an instructor retreat every year and so we'll get together and we'll talk about well, what do you do? What are your exercises that you do and 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," and I can't remember if it's the first chapter or the first page of The Great Gatsby. And I say, "Okay, how many seeds of what's to come "do you think are planted here?" And they're smart people. So they go, three, four, maybe. They point them out. And then he'd show all 25 because it's all planted. And that's a hard exercise to do unless you just read The Great Gatsby because who would know? You have to (mumbles), you'd have to have read it to know what they are, or else you'd think we were 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, you have to have just read it, though. As soon as you get to the end, go back and reread the first chapter and it will read very differently to you because you will see how everything that played forward was planted there in that opening scene. 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 it 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 it doesn't change too much. So when you're writing that opening scene and you know what it is, there are four things that the reader needs to know in the very first scene. There are four things that we are wired to look for and hunt for that will allow us to relax us into the novel, that will allow us to go, "All right, I get it. "This writer has authority. "I'm gonna do that." What's 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 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 hold it 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 us in 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. So now you're being vague and you're not letting us know, and the reader can tell and it's annoying 'cause it feels like the writer's going, "I know something you don't know "and if you keep reading, maybe I'll tell you," and they just wanna punch 'em and go binge watch Breaking Bad on your phone. You don't wanna do that because what I'm always saying to writers on that level, it's okay, you wanna hold this information back? How does that make your story better? Why is it better if you keep this back? And then I always get, "Well, I don't know," because it doesn't is the answer. You want to give it away, you want to give it away at the very beginning so we know where we're going. I just did a workshop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, actually for the SCBWI, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and there was a really wonderful editor there and she said that her mentor back when she got her MFA had said to her, "The first paragraph is a promise you make to the reader." The first paragraph is a promise. This is where we're going, this is what it's going to be about. If you don't give us that, we're not willing to go. And I'd like to read you now, this I a quick example of that. This is the second paragraph of a novel called The Silent Wife, which is a literary thriller. So second paragraph. "At 45, Jody still sees herself as a young woman. "She does not have her eye on the future, but lives "very much in the moment, keeping her focus "on the every day. "She assumes without having thought about it, "that things will go on indefinitely and their imperfect "yet entirely acceptable way," exactly like what we were talking about before, when the character starts and walks onto the page, this is exactly where they are. It's not perfect, but it's gonna go on like this forever and I'm good with it. In other words, the writer tells us, "She is deeply unaware "that her life is now peaking, that her youthful resilience, "which her 20-year marriage to Tod Gilbert "has been slowly eroding," probably because he dithers all the time, just kidding. "Has been slowly eroding, is approaching "a final stage of disintegration." Now again, talk about denial, right? The writers are telling us that marriage is in a final state of disintegration. She just said that everything was going to go on its imperfect but entirely fine way. So this is about to come up to the surface. "That her notions," now she's talking again about Jody, "That her notions about who she is "and how she ought to conduct herself are far less "stable than she supposes, given that a few short months "are all it will take to make a killer out of her." Just gave it away! (audience laughs) She just told us exactly where it was going! It doesn't make you want to go, oh, I've already read that because what do they say? Three guesses and the first two don't count? Who's she gonna kill (laughs)? Could it be that dithering husband, Tod? Well, maybe, but the point is, she just gave it away because it's not about what's gonna happen, it's about why. What would it take? You think about someone who's really sure about who they are and what they are and it's actually way less stable than they think. I wanna read that story, I wanna go forward. So you want to give it away, give it away. And if you give too much away, that's what the delete key is for (laughs). You can always take it back, but give it away. The next thing we wanna 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's gonna come from. Is this person gonna get what they want, are they gonna be harmed, what's gonna happen? So you wanna 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, the protagonist is gonna saunter in chapter two, the reader's gonna assume this person's (laughs) the protagonist because that's who we're meeting. So if possible, you really either want to give us the protagonist or let people be talking about them enough so that we know that way it's that person's story. We wanna know whose story it is. The next thing that we wanna know is what's happening here? What's going on? Which means that something needs to be happening. We don't wanna start with (laughs). I remember as an agent, there was one week where every single manuscript that came in began with a description of the weather (laughs). It was like, for pages. It was like, was 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. They'll plunge us into action and it'll just be a thing that's happening, but we have no reason to care about it, even though the protagonist might be in a stagecoach just about to go off a cliff. We're going, yeah, well yeah, but so what? Why should I care? And the reason that we would are 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 gonna trouble the protagonist. Why does it matter then? And this is where, to be very clear, this is where backstory comes onto the page and becomes the most potent layer of story not because you as the writer are gonna step onto the page and go, "By the way, the stagecoach might go off "a cliff and here's why it's really bad "for the protagonist," and you're gonna tell us. We're gonna be in the protagonist's head as she struggles with what's happening. And a great example of this is the first chapter of Caroline Leavitt, who's novelist. You may know of her. She's written about 12 novels, a couple were New York Times Bestseller. Her novel, which at this moment, is her most recent novel, 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 shiny with heat." Lucy's 16, by the way. So that's the opening line. This chapter, believe it or not, is 33 pages long. End of the chapter, she actually gets in the car and leaves with William. So it's spanned in realtime like, you know, a school day. That's it. But what we get in the chapter is all of her relevant backstory, why? Because 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 do, she's trying to rationalize away something that is impossible to rationalize away and what she's struggling with is she was brought up by her aunt Iris, she's got a sister, Charlotte, who is a year and a half older than her, and she wants two mutually exclusive things, she wants to run away with William and have to disappear for two years without a word, right? Because if they find 'em, it's illegal. And she wants to think that doing that is not gonna crush her sister and her aunt, they're going to be okay with it (laughs). Now obviously we all know that's kinda not possible (laughs), that's kinda never gonna happen. Of course they're gonna be totally upset. But so, we're in her head as she's struggling with do I or don't I, what do I do? And in that, we find out that once again, it's weird. When people want to get rid of parents, they tend to kill them in a car crash when they're five. I don't know why, but this is what happened. Her parents are both killed in a car crash when Lucy's five and Charlotte is seven. She's raised by her aunt. Lucy and Charlotte used to be very close, they've now kind of pulled away. Charlotte is doing very well in school, Lucy not so well. She doesn't feel as loved by Charlotte. William is someone who takes her under his wing, he nurtures her. She wants to be a writer and he nurtures that. He tells us about the first time they had sex. We get all of that, again, not just because she's telling us, but because Lucy is sifting through it, trying to figure out what the hell to do, which is how you go in and out of a flashback. They go in wanting to try to figure something out. They're looking at it because wow, is that really what I thought it was, or once I've drawn this conclusion, it's gonna let me know what to do and then they come out and they draw a conclusion. That's what she does all the way through until she finally gets in the car at the end of the chapter. Again, you can read a bunch of the chapter on Amazon. Like, you can go on and look. It's a masterclass on weaving backstory in because all of it is there in service of what's happening in the moment. We never feel like we've gone somewhere a distance 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 writing. You can't write beautiful until you write ugly first, and when I say write ugly, I don't mean write about ugly things or really write 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 will be really hard to get rid of (laughs) once you realize that maybe that isn't where you wanna go. And the other rule is be really mean to your protagonist. Be really mean, be really mean because as, was it Emily Dickinson who said, "The wounded deer leaps the highest"? You've got to be mean because that is what's going to enforce them to dig deep and make this change. And writers often pull punches because they love their protagonist, they're nice, they've figured out all the why. They know their misbelief and they feel sort of sorry for them because of that. Be mean, be mean. And I don't just 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 'cause when people want to do worse, they kill their mother. That's what they always do. I'll make the mother die, even if it has nothing to do with the story. Dig in your story's backyard and figure out given who they are and what they want, what is the most painful thing that could happen? And then go for that. You always hurt the one you love. Be mean. So the exercise is to write the opening scene the moment where your protagonist has no choice but to take action. You guys at home, write the scene. You are the lucky puffs. You have as much time as you need. These poor people (laughs), three minutes. So just basically come up with where you think that's gonna be. You obviously cannot write the scene that fast. Ready? Begin. Okay, that goes by fast, doesn't it (laughs)? So was that? Did you feel like you had found like, at least the beginning of where an opening might be? Yeah, it does start to get easier, it does start to come clearer the deeper you go in.