Write your Opening Scene
So, I have this system that I use to start writing the opening scene of the story. So, as we saw before, you know your start point and your end point and your timeline, you know where the story starts, you can write that opening scene, that's a very logical thing to get to do, and also we'll be writing the closing scene, so you've got those bookends and you can really start to make sure your point of view is correct. I had somebody ask me at the break I keep using the term POV and that's my fault for being jargony, POV means point of view, so we make sure your point of view is correct, your POV is correct, that your structure is holding together, that the voice is on the page, these are all things that we're testing when we go to write the opening scene. So, before we actually get down into it, I wanna talk about what a scene actually is. A lot of people are not very clear. So, a scene, I always say, is the smallest unit of story. So, you can break the story down into the smallest piec...
e and it's still a story, that's what a scene is. So, we talked before that stories about change, there's an arc about change, so that's what I mean by a scene being the smallest unit of a story, something's gotta change in the scene, something's gotta happen where there's a tiny arc of change. And the way to think about this is if we look back at our arc of change and our graph for Cinderella, all these little steps and moments along the way are each gonna be a scene. So here we've called out that one scene where Cinderella meets the Fairy Godmother, so that's a distinct thing that happens, it happens in one time and place, something changes, before that scene, Cinderella's not going to the ball, suddenly she maybe gets to go to the ball. Cinderella's such a great story to talk about because we all know it really well, but when I was thinking about it, we were talking before about a character having agency, Cinderella doesn't have a lot of agency in her own story, things happen to her and magic wands are waved and princes rescue her. Nonetheless, it's a great thing to understand what a scene is, so something changes, this is a little arc of change, that's what a scene is. Now, sometimes people ask how does a scene relate to a chapter, is a chapter one scene, can it be multiple scenes? And the answer to that is it just depends. So, sometimes, the way you think of a chapter is again, it's an arc of change, something changes, there's a movement from one thing to another and sometimes that might be a couple of scenes incorporated together, but they're gonna be tied together in some profound way. So, it might be somebody's in a place and they get in a car and have a conversation and then they arrive in another place, those are probably all part of the same thing. Just because somebody gets in a car is not a good enough reason to change the scene, it's more about what is that change, that little thing that we're tracking. So, are there any questions about what a scene is or how to think about one? Yes?
I had heard you could have more than one chapter in a scene.
I'm trying to understand that, that you could have more than one chapter, so meaning several chapters incorporate one scene.
Yeah, but the chapter's like a hard stop.
Yeah, and if you think about it, there are certain books and stories where actually the scene never changes. So, I didn't read this book, but the novel Room happened the whole thing in one room with a mother and a child and they're captive and it's horrible, but the whole thing happens in that one room, so that's a perfect example, the whole novel is really one scene in many ways, you know, technically, right? They're in one place, but different things will happen to stop the narrative or contain it, it's like containers really along the way. So, I think that the answer to that is yes, it probably could, but probably something else is going on. So, I sometimes like to talk about as if it's a stage and you're writing a play, and there's a set, and if somebody comes onto that set, that's a change, you know? It's still the same set, but then if something happens and somebody leaves or another person comes on, you know, there's gotta be something different to have it be where the lines are drawn. So, it's a little fuzzy and watery and it can kinda depend, but I think you can't go wrong if you think okay, a scene is something that changes, and that's what we're gonna track. And really, for a new writer who's just starting out and is maybe unsure, I think the best thing to do is to just equate a scene with a chapter, I think that's the easiest way to proceed. It's kind of like we were talking about the rules, you know, know the rules before you break them, in some ways that's just the most basic rule, and it's ridiculous, you would never adhere to that by any external measure, but it can work, it absolutely can work, there's a million novels that are written well that way. So, I don't know if that answers the question, but it gets us closer to it. So, what I suggest when you start with your opening scene, I have this exercise, I call it three times the opening scene, and it goes like this. The reason that I designed it like this, I'll explain that first, is we've talked before about a writer's tendency to be perfectionist, and to be nervous about getting it right, and to be so concerned with having their words work, as if the first thing you write is going to be read, or is going to be good, is going to be whole, and this exercise is designed to get you outta that mindset and to get you in the mindset that actually, a lot of what you write you're gonna throw away. I sometimes teach a class where I put a shredder in the middle of the room and I say we're gonna do this three times opening scene exercise and two of these scenes you're gonna shred, nobody is ever gonna see 'em. And it makes people so nervous, like we all just laughed like oh, you know, ha ha, but it's like no, you're gonna throw out a lot of pages, and you've gotta get used to that and get in the habit of that. And the other thing is, in fact, a lot of my most successful writer friends say they know that they've finally got their book idea on track when they start throwing out pages, because it's okay, this doesn't fit, out it goes, okay, this is not part of what I need it to be, it's something else, this is a different book, you know, that type of thing. The other thing this exercise does is it gets us into our subconscious brain. So, our conscious brain is so problematic in so many ways because in the top of our conscious brain is like our fifth grade English teacher who's slapping our wrist about our comma usage, or you know, is this participle the right, I don't even know what a participle is, so I better not talk about that. Is this verb agreement right? You know, it's that kind of really high order thinking that we get hung up on, or does this sound right, is this good enough? All that sort of thought process, none of which is helpful for writing a story, really. So, what this exercise does is it forces us to get down into that, I think story exists, I have no science to back this up whatsoever, but it exists at a more primal level, and that you can tap into that and tell a great story, we can all tell a great story, we're all really good storytellers. I promise you that you're all a really good storyteller. What gets in the way is that higher order thinking, and that we get all clenched and tight around it, so this exercise is about tapping into that other place. So, the way it goes is this, you set a timer, and it depends on how much time you have. If I'm in a classroom setting, I tend to do this in 15 minute increments, but I think the ideal way is 45 minute increments. So, you set aside a chunk of time, I don't know what 45 times three is, does somebody know what the is? It's something, it's like almost three hours, let's call it that, so what you're gonna do is this is what you're gonna do for this period of time, it's all you're gonna do. And you set your timer, and you write for 45 minutes, and I'll tell yoU what you're gonna write in a minute, and then you get up and you have a snack, and you do it again, and you write for 45 minutes, and then you do it a third time, and it's back to back is really important here because what tends to happen is that you tend to get panicky about what you're gonna write, and you tend to just wanna get something down, and that often is the best writing that you do. It's really sort of amazing. But the idea is to put yourself into that state of panic so that your top level mind can't mess with you, and you just gotta write the pages down so that the constraint here is really important. And what you do is you start with that opening scene, you know where your story starts. You did the pairings of the start and the end, you picked one that works for your point and your protagonists and all of these things, and you're gonna write that opening scene, but here's what's amazing, that you can have defined that point in time, you can have graphed it out, you can have written it out, you can have paired your scene with the point, you can know all this stuff about where your story starts, but there's still a million choices about actually where that story starts. So, you could say something like my story starts on a ship, and it's sailing across the sea, and it starts when they take off and throw the ropes over and set sail. That's like okay, great, we can see that, we know that, if we know who the protagonist on that ship is and what they're about, we can track what that's gonna be, and it's a proper scene, it takes places in a location, you know, we're in a place, we're in a ship, that's all good. But when you think about it, what is that scene, all the things that it could actually be, it could be coming up to the ship, somebody saying goodbye at the ship, somebody not getting on the ship and somebody else getting on the ship. It could be getting on the ship and hiding, it could be, I mean, there's so many things that that could be, and that's what we wanna try to drill into is what are some of the possibilities for that opening scene. We're now getting very specific, where before we were sorta general, like generally here's where my story starts, and generally here's where it goes, now we're gonna get super specific and drill down into what actually goes down. So, what's fun about this is you've got three iterations of the exact same scene, so that's what you're writing, is the boat is leaving, this is where your story starts, three different ways of looking at that scene. Now, you can choose three different moments like I just described, three different, like what we're doing is we're slicing that moment into little bits and picking one moment out, so you could pick three moments out, or you could try here, this is back to our idea of wet clay, what if you're not sure about your point of view, who's going to tell your tale, who your narrator is? This is a great time to try that out, like maybe I'll try third person, maybe I'll try first person, maybe I'll try some secondary character who's not the protagonist and see how this looks from their point of view. It's trying stuff on, so that's what I mean about you'll probably throw two thirds of this exercise away, but the point is to build confidence in the choice that you do make. So, you can choose, depending on what you're wrestling with about, you know, it's really hard to decide where the story starts, and what that exact moment is, and is it right here or is it a few minutes before, or is it an hour before, and what are the implications of that? And what we talked about before with the backstory, this is where that really comes into play, because sometimes if you move the start of a story just the tiniest little bit, you don't have to tell a bunch of backstory, or you might have to tell a bunch of backstory. It's a very powerful thing to start is where are you gonna start the story, or a powerful thing to decide, and that's what this exercise is all about. So, you're gonna be writing really fast no matter what, even for 45 minutes, you're writing really fast, and you might not get very much done, it might be just kind of a sketch. And you can use things while you're doing this like we saw Jocelyn using that TK, you know, something something, an evil thing happens, or TK, whole scene of dialogue happens here between these people, but this is what it means. You can do shorthand, the idea is to just get the shape of it, the structure of it, so you're moving fast on purpose. And then you're gonna step back and you're gonna think okay, well, which one of these works the best? So, what I wanna do to show you how this works is we have a volunteer who very kindly has agreed to let us look at her three opening scene sketches, and that is Laura. So, we're not gonna be able to read the three scenes or go over the whole things in detail because we don't have days to do that, but what I wanna do is talk a little bit about the three choices that Laura made. The reason I chose to look at what she has done for us is because she did something very interesting that I think is very helpful. So, I wanna try to show, oh, we got that up there, okay good, the computer. So, the first one, well, Laura, this is totally putting you on the spot, can you give a super succinct little summary of what your story is about?
I'm writing a mystery thriller, I guess, looking at all the breakdowns of the genre, and it's about a mystery shopper, which is a person who's like a hotel's rating agent, pretends to be a guest and rates hotels, and she travels around the world. And I was deciding whether it'd be a series or not, and as a series it would be in a different location each book, and as a stand alone, not so much, and she basically is in a position where she has to uncover and solve a crime. And her husband's missing.
Her husband's missing, she is a person who's in the business of observing, she's hired to observe hotels, are they functioning, high level hotel, are they functioning the way they're supposed to function, and she finds herself in this position of having to solve a crime. So, what Laura did in this first iteration of her scene, I'll just read a little bit of this. Paris was not always a good idea. Rain Montgomery hated eating in restaurants alone, but a job was a job. The maitre d' sat her next to the swinging kitchen door while the waiter rushed over to clear away the second table setting before she was even in the chair. At least this table was better than the usual next-to-the-toilet location consigned to solo diners. From their sidelong glances she was sure the staff were embarrassed for her. Romantic cities were bad enough. Romantic restaurants in romantic cities were the worst. The last time she'd been in Paris had been on her honeymoon. But her husband had vanished and she was in Paris alone with the job of spying on the people who eked out a living making comfortable people more comfortable. So, I'm gonna stop there, and just so the people watching online can see it. So, first of all, there are so many things that are so beautiful in this opening that I think you do really, really well. I wanna point out this moment of backstory, since we talked about that, you see this right here? That line is a little moment of backstory, it's triggered by something that happens in story present, and she's remembering the last time I was in Paris was my honeymoon, a perfect example of weaving in backstory, it's not even a whole line, but it gives us a whole giant sense of context for this story. I think that is really well done. This is also a bit of backstory, the next little bit, now we know something's afoot, her husband has vanished, so we don't know why, we don't know who, we don't know anything, but we know that, and that's a bit of backstory as well 'cause it's already happened. And I just really deeply love this line just for its artistry, the job of spying on the people who eked out a living making comfortable people more comfortable. This is just beautiful, and one thing to note about this is when we talked before about the point of a story, so you see how this line gives us a point of view, it gives us a sense of what this is about, is gives us a sense of what we're gonna take away, there's some of that, that and so is answered in a line like this. So, in one paragraph, we get a lot of really good story information, so bravo, really well done. But the scene goes on, and it's a great scene, but what I wanna ask Laura about is so this was a first scene that you did in the three sketches, and it's the third person point of view from your protagonist, it's close, third person close on your protagonist. So, was that a conscious choice that you made?
Yes, I don't like reading or writing from first person.
Okay perfect, so what do you not like about it?
Well, first of all, in crime writing, if you're in first person, I wanted to be able to have things going on that she wasn't aware of so the reader knows more than she does, and you can't do that in the first person.
Okay, so that's an excellent answer to the question we asked before is is your choice sound? So, that's how we ask that, that's a really sound answer, and also, a deep understanding of the genre, you clearly know this genre, you've read this genre, you have opinions about this genre, that's excellent, so all those things, the work that you did, come to play, even in one paragraph of this. And so, your instinct to put her in this restaurant, talk about that, because what we were talking about was okay, she could've said my starting point is this woman's in Paris and her husband's gone, but why this moment and why this restaurant scene? Do you remember?
Part of it, I wanted to show her at work, show her in her job, 'cause a lot of people don't know what that job is. I also needed to get her out of her house so that something could happen to her house in the timing of things.
Okay, so there's some plot based reasons for why you chose to do this, and those are really, really good reasons, so that's great, so that was choice one, we'll hold that in our heads, and then we'll go to choice two, which I'm gonna zip down here, and we won't get to read this whole great scene, but we may come back and talk about it. So, scene sketch number two, and did you do it by a timer and everything? You cheated? That's okay. You still did a really good job. So, scene sketch, the reason I asked is that this is only one page, so it's a short little scene, or iteration of it, which gives me some information as a book coach because I think maybe you didn't like this one as much, but we'll get to that in a minute. So, this is third person, but this is now from the bad guy's point of view.
Kind of omniscient.
But I mean, we're following the bad guy.
Yeah, a bad guy.
Okay, so it was a quiet block by the ocean, the only sounds the man who hear were the roll of the waves and the choked, heavy barks of the seals. He pulled up his collar and squatted down at the entrance of the dark house. Using a small flashlight, he picked the lock. When the front door swung open, he slipped inside with two cans of gasoline. He didn't question the assignment to burn down the house. When the gang gave an order, you did it. What the gweipoh had done to be taught a lesson, he didn't know. White women were usually left alone by the Triads, not this woman. So, this guy is in this house doing a bad deed that he has been told to do, it's clear that he's a bad guy, and so yeah, what I said before was not correct, it is close omniscient, but we're in his head, that's what I meant, we're following him, he's clearly a bad guy, he's up to no good. So, this is another choice of where to start this story, so why did you choose to try this one?
In the genre, there's like you kinda have to have something bad happen right away or people won't buy your book, apparently. So, they definitely want a murder in the first chapter, or they want, if you're going for a thriller, you have like, you know, the guy in the bookstore needs something to blow up in the first page, so this is the blowing up on the first page option.
Okay, so again, I love the understanding of your genre and the conventions on what your reader is looking for, that's really great. So, when you wrote this, how did you feel in terms of the other one? So, you tried this out with the protagonist in her head, you're following her and she's in this restaurant and nothing bad has happened yet, now this one you jump forward, or maybe it's concurrent, we don't know, but something bad is going on right now, how did that feel for you to put that on the page?
It kinda felt cliche, formulaic, but it was fun to write.
Okay, so why was it fun to write, just 'cause it was action?
Yeah, because I've never sort of picked a lock and blown up a house, so it was kinda fun to be in that and do that.
Okay, but it felt maybe too obvious or too cliche, that's interesting. So then, the third iteration of a scene, and again, this is all where does this story start is scene sketch number three, so here we are in the protagonist, back to the protagonist, following her, but we've moved forward in the timeline. So, when we saw her first in the restaurant, she was just doing her job, thinking about her vanished husband, and then we saw the bad guy performing a bad deed, now what we see is the protagonist coming upon that bad deed later, so a few ticks down the timeline. So, Rain Macbeth pressed her forehead against the window of the plane. She was nearly home. Beneath her, San Francisco sprawled like a dissolute woman, a landscape of extravagant curves and watered coves only partially hidden by the thin veil of fog. The geography made perfect sense, the city was a whore, sold and sold again to the highest bidders ever since the Gold Rush. It was especially true now, thanks to yet another tech boom. The plane roared and banked toward the airport, Rain swore irritably as she crossed out a letter in the crossword. I'm not gonna read all of this, but I'm gonna skip ahead in the scene to she gets in a taxi, the taxi comes up to her house, and her brain was in that fugue state between waking and sleeping where nothing felt real. So, when the driver pulled to the curb and instead of her pale gray cottage there stood, or in actual fact, leaned, a pile of blackened timber and wet ash, she was slow to make the connection. Is this where you want me to drop you? The cabbie asked. Rain stared at the bent back of the driver, his hands clutching the steering wheel, thin shoulders hunched up to his ears like a harassed schoolboy. Then she found herself standing in front of her ruined cottage with no memory of getting out of the car. Her house had burned down. So, that is a moment, I wanna go back to the beginning which we're showing here and talk about a few things that you do really beautifully here. So this, we talked before about info dumps, you don't wanna dump info on anybody, but look at how very deftly Laura lets us know right here where we are in time. So, we know this is contemporary, we know this is now, we know this is modern, and that's all she has to do. She doesn't have to give us, you know, pages and pages of explanation, and it's just really beautifully done here because she's flying in a plane and she's looking down on the landscape, and we see all this, and there's this nice metaphor here, the city was a whore, bought and sold again, that does not feel to me random, it feels to me very much of this story, right? This is a story that's very much about a gold rush, about the haves and the haves nots, about watching the comfortable people, we saw that in the last iteration of the scene, so here again is a way of giving context and meaning and that thing we're always looking for, like why should I care? We're grounded here like something good is gonna come from all this understanding, and it's just very deftly done here. So, really, really nice job on the writing in all of these scenes. So, I wanted to ask you then about this scene, so it's your third attempt, you've inched forward in time, now this bad deed has been done and she comes upon it, so why did you choose that moment?
That's when everything changes, and while I don't have a murder in the first page, I have a fire by the second page, which kinda fits into the genre requirements of something happening. And this is where I introduce the character, so I wanted to give some information about her and what she did.
Okay, excellent, so what I really like is just do you see how she takes a moment, the story starts in this moment, and she just looks at it in this slightly different way to write these three different moments about where it could start. And any one of them could work. So, that's the question is when we ask if we just go back to the presentation now, when we stop and we ask well, which one of these three scenes works the best, what we're really asking is which scene is gonna serve the story the best? You've already been talking about the genre requirements of this story, but what you wanna do is look at where's this gonna end up? So, can we talk a little bit about what happens to Rain? What's her arc of change? What happens to her over time? We don't know?
Still working on that.
Take a wild guess, she starts as a woman who?
She ends up sort of coming into her own power, to be totally cliche, since you said that was okay, and goes to Hong Kong, she's a fish out of water, and solves a crime.
Okay, so she becomes a powerful woman who solves a crime, and she starts as perhaps maybe a little shaky, because she's, from the scene in the restaurant
She's grieving, bitter.
Grieving, bitter, my husband's vanished, I'm alone in this restaurant, I have to watch the comfortable people, you can tell she's not a happy camper, and she ends up solving a crime and feeling more powerful, so that's our arc of change. So, when we look at that, at what point, if you had to say what point your story makes, what might you say? What's your argument about human nature or crime or the world or women in power? I know I'm asking her all the hard questions.
I think one of her points might be about the nature of change itself, and having a character who is fixed in her view of the world come to terms with the idea that change will happen and that she has to roll with it.
Wow, that was great.
What she said.
Go back and listen to the video, that was fantastic, well done, writing partner. Shows you the value of a good writing partner. So, I love that, so the nature of change itself and who she is in the world, that's so great. So given that, which one of these would you vote as your favorite for that?
Probably the one where she comes home in the taxi.
Okay, so I see some heads nodding in the background, which is super interesting, so let's vote. Okay, we've got the woman in the restaurant doing her job, thinking about her husband, we've got the bad guy burning down the house, and then we've got the woman coming home and seeing the house burned down, so let's do a vote. So, who would pick the restaurant? Okay, maybe like half, and who would pick the bad guy? Nobody picks the bad guy. And who would pick the woman comes in the taxi? So, it's about even Steven between those two, so it's really interesting, so let's talk about why maybe the bad guy is not very resonant. You gave the opinion that we want something to be happening in a thriller, we want bad stuff to be going down. But what I would say about that scene is it gives too much away. We don't know who this guy is, but we already know what he's doing, who he's working for, he's being told by some conglomeration of bad guys to do this thing, like it gives too much away. So, there's always a very fine balance between what to give away and what not to give away, I talked before about a book that gives everything away in the first chapter, so that is a thing you could do, but I feel like that story would be more about that guy, why is he working for the Triad, why is he burning houses down, why is he a guy that feels he has to do that? But those are the questions that would be in my head, it wouldn't be about, I don't actually even think who's house is he burning down, I sorta don't care, even though you say oh, it's a white woman, like there's something interesting in that, but it's just not nearly as resonant for your protagonist as the other two. So then, it's interesting that there's kind of a divide on the other two, so that argues in one sense for know a little bit about her before we see her house burn down, the one where she shows up and her house is burned down has that element of shock and surprise and what's going on here and what's she gonna do? So, if you had to pick between those two, if I said you gotta write this today, which one would you pick?
The house burning down.
Okay, and can you say why?
Well, I do go into more of her story in that page between the paragraph you read and the house burning down, so I think that the character gets introduced, and I think that really and truly as a new writer in that genre, if I had a whole chapter without something happening, they would just not even read it.
Yeah, definitely, definitely. So, I'm just scanning through, and I think you're absolutely right, you do do some character development there.