With the major revisions to Hunters completed (again), I sat down yesterday to reread some of what I’d done and got stopped to make a few adjustments to the very first scene.
The first scene is inarguably vital to the rest of the novel, in that if the scene fails to set the tone, present the reader with a story question, introduce engaging character, and land on something that will yank the reader forward into the next scene, the reader might just well put the book down and walk on. This is why, I think, so many authors rely on the prologue. Stories just don’t usually start with a bang, but we feel like books need to. The bang doesn’t always have to be bloody, violent, or fraught with thrills, though. Sometimes something that is an emotional bang for the character makes a stronger opening than a bloody battlefield.
I think the key to writing a beginning is really all about focusing on those few factors that really bring a reader through the scene wanting more. My list of things to check the first scene for (and every scene thereafter to some extent) is four simple things:
- Tension and Emotion – these are the building blocks for a solid character and for getting the reader to care about the people in your story. People read for people, it’s as simple as that, and no matter how cool your premise or concept, if the characters aren’t engaging and at least somewhat sympathetic, your readers aren’t going to care what you put them through to reach their goals.
- Story questions – give the reader something they need to find out about, and make it clear. This doesn’t need to be the story question – you can definitely employ a little bait and switch here if you do it subtly, but the question needs to be clear and strong and something worth reading.
- Tone and voice – these absolutely must be consistent with the rest of the story, otherwise you’re promising the readers who like the original tone something you’ll fail to deliver, and potentially scaring off the readers who prefer the latter tone to the former.
- A hook (or two) – something at that makes the reader unable to put the book down. My preference is for two of these – one at the beginning and one at the end of the scene. This is often accomplished with a simple bit of shocking dialog or something that twists the perceptions of the scene and makes the reader rabid to get to the next part and find out what happens or why.
So how do you work beginnings? What elements do you check for in revision to make sure your beginnings stand out?