I’m doing this a bit backwards, because I usually start with characters when I’m creating a book. Writers talk about the average of three scenes for most chapters, but that is not a hard and fast rule. You have to know what a scene is and how to use it effectively, so you can make that opening scene so seductive a reader can’t put the ms/book down.
What is a scene?
A scene is a miniature book â€” it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you don’t know where to begin, begin at the end. What do you want the scene to do?
The perfect scene provides information for the reader which complicates the plot and/or the romance in some way. The information forces the protagonist to make a decision â€” the result of that action is the scene’s sequel that leads into the next scene. Think of it as a train — all the cars are the scenes and they’re hooked together by transitions, but because it’s a train, they’re all going in the same direction.
Never forget the basic physical law: Cause and effect. If a character makes a decision in one way â€” then he/she must live with the results. What if they made a different decision? Think of the story of The Lady or the Tiger. What would happen if the protagonist picks the right door? What if he picks the wrong one? Either way, the story progresses. Cause and effect.
But that’s an ending. Let’s start with a beginning. A romance example would be a couple who are having problems because he’s never there for her. Or so she feels. When she’s about to deliver their baby, she calls him and he promises that he will definitely be there with her. On his way to the hospital, he sees an accident right in front of him — an accident with injured people. Now he has to make that choice that will drive the rest of the book. What happens if he stops? What happens if he doesn’t? There’s no right answer except what works for your story.
Always look at the consequences of your characters’ decisions as you plan the next scene of your book. â€œWhat if. . .â€ is still the very best tool, but don’t use it as â€œWhat if this happens. . .?â€ Use it as â€œWhat if my character decides this and then this will happen. . .?â€
Start with a powerful opening line that sets the stage for your characters and your book â€“ again first impressions count.
Should it be dialogue or narrative? Again, there is no right answer except what works for your book. I like to start with dialogue, because that instantly draws the reader into the story. However, there are times when dialogue doesn’t work.
What you shouldn’t start with is a wonderful description of the setting and the times. It may be the msot beautiful writing in the world, but your reader is going to put it down and look for something that grabs her.
Be wary of the crime of TMI — too much information at the beginning. Start with your characters in the midst of “terrible trouble” — a place that’s a turning point in their lives because the decision they make in the opening scene will change them in ways they can’t imagine at the beginning of the scene.
Do the hero and the heroine have to be in the opening scene? That old rule of thumb has fallen by the wayside, but if they aren’t physically in the opening scene, the reader needs to feel their presence — they can be talked about, for example. Often the opening scene is used it introduce one or the other, so the reader can attach to that point of view character and dive into the story.
I’m going to give you some examples from my books. I’ll start with the first book I sold (and the editor said she bought it because of the strong opening and characters):
** Dead drunk. With a moan, he grasped his head. He understood the phrase too well. He was the latter and wished he could be the former. His head felt as if a tombstone ground down into his shoulders. â€“ Nothing Wagered (creates character for hero â€“ and things he must change during the unfolding of the story)
** â€œAre you leaving us, Quinn?â€
Lord Marlesquin had long ago taught the ton to address him as Quinn. It had begun when he was known as â€œSir Alexander Quinleyâ€ before his uncle died, leaving him the familyâ€™s title. He had hated the name he shared with his late father almost as much as he had despised the cur who had sired him, but he had become accustomed to being called Quinn by his friends. He knew keeping the name made no sense, save that he still heard her whispering it in his dreams. — Marry Me, Millie (sets up the hero, his conflict with his father and the fact that he’s missing a woman he once held in his arms — the whole crux of the story)
** Why didn’t they just kill him and have it over with?
He had never liked waiting. Not even now while he waited to be executed.
He sat with his back against the cold stone wall and tapped his fingers impatiently on the clammy floor. He ignored the other prisoners. They were just shadows in the thin light from the single brand set in the wall beyond the barred door. If his impatience disturbed them, they would not argue about it. In the barbaric world beneath the Tiria’s palace, he had carved out a niche with his bare hands. He was not afraid to kill to keep what was his, and they knew it. â€“ Dreamsinger (introduces hero and world conflict â€“ This was a prologue because hero doesnâ€™t appear in opening scene of the body of the book — we’ll discuss prologues later this week)
** The first scream came from the kitchen. — A Rather Necessary End — to set the mystery feeling for the first book of my Regency mystery series. The openings of the other books in the on-going series with Lady Priscilla Flanders and Sir Neville Hathaway are:
** â€œDo you want to tell her, or should I?â€ Mrs. Moore looked up at the butler who was trying to avoid her eyes. The housekeeper crossed her arms in front of her and planted herself in the middle of the laundry room doorway when Gilbert tried to make his escape. — Grave Intentions
** Some days, Lady Priscilla Flanders wanted to strangle her Aunt Cordelia. Other days, she preferred the idea of boiling her fatherâ€™s sister in oil or stashing her away in an iron maiden. This afternoon, she was wondering if it would be possible in the seaside village of Stonehall-on-Sea to rent a coliseum, a blood-thirsty crowd, and a hungry lion. — Faire Game
** â€œMama, tell him to stop!â€
Lady Priscilla Flanders looked up from the list she was preparing for the cook. Since their arrival at Thornycroft late in the afternoon, she had been busy making arrangements for food during their first week at her auntâ€™s house just outside Bath. — The Greatest Possible Mischief (By now the readers know the heroine’s children, so this is a sign to them that the youngsters will be important in solving the mystery)
** Trouble was easy to find. How many times had Lady Priscilla Flanders said those very words to one of her children? Now her aunt was saying the same thing to her. — Digging Up Trouble
** â€œBlood,â€ she whispered. â€œIt is everywhere. Blood and death.â€
She lifted an upset chair, but froze when a hand paralyzed with death dropped to the floor with a heavy thump. The man lying on the floor had a red spot in the middle of his chest where a knife with a bone haft had been driven into him. An answering echo came from the doorway she had passed through only moments before.
The sound was not another dead manâ€™s hand, but the unmistakable rhythm of footfalls. — The Wedding Caper
Right now, I’m thinking up a dynamite opening sentence for the next book in the series. Until I have it, I can’t begin the book.
As you can see, there is a mixture of dialogue and narrative in my opening lines. I’d say I use about a 50-50 mix. Whichever serves the story best.