-casually loading rubber gloves into a t-shirt cannon-
Tuesday we had a nice conversation about the anatomy of a scene and story beats. Today we're talking about the very first scene in a story, what it has to do, and what that means for you. Get your scalpels back out, my curious congregation of degenerates, because we are about to talk about beginnings.
Content Warnings: The usual dose of irreverence, probably some swear words, and me, telling you how to live your life. Very minor Harry Potter spoilers. Vague spoilers for The Walking Dead (from like several seasons ago). Oh, and rubber gloves. Being shot at you through a t-shirt cannon. -bang-
The very first scene!
You're so excited about your story, you want to sit down and write it, you have a blank document open before you and the world is your oyster andddd....
I'm sure this has never happened to you before.
No, seriously though, we've all been there. In that place where we can't get the fire started or we manage it but we get about twenty pages in and it's like "oh right, writing is hard".
Well, today we're going to be talking about the very first scene, what it needs to do both to function as a hook and opening to a novel, and what it needs to do to support the rest of your book so you don't end up lying in a pit of middle-of-the-book-goo and unable to get out.
First scenes have to be a lot of things. They have to be a hook and an invitation. They have to set the tone for the rest of your novel. They have to introduce at least your protagonist and very likely either a couple of other characters or at least allude to your antagonist. They have to introduce the main conflict. And your world. And woo...that's a lot of things that you have to do in a single scene!
How do we ever get anything done?
They have to be a hook and an invitation. - I am sure you've heard at least one shmuck saying "your book has to have a catchy hook. You should be able to get the reader on the first line and make it impossible for them to stop reading."
Yeah that? ^ That's a tall order.
However, you should have a hook. I'm sure you've also heard somebody say "you're making a promise to your reader"?
That's the hook.
You are saying "This is how the story starts, read it for more".
You aren't trying to catch every reader in the store or on the kindle app. You're trying to catch the ones that will like your book. If you start off with something high octane and catch a bunch of high octane readers they are not going to be pleased with your literary allegory about the slow hostile takeover of the vegan lifestyle or whatever.
Whatever your book is. Start with that. That's your hook. "This is what my book is about, if you like that, you might like it. Why don't you come in and sit down a while?"
They have to set the tone for the rest of the novel. - Tone. Theme. I hear people griping about this a lot, but it's actually not hard.
Your serious fantasy epic where dozens of people die and magic is few and far between, is probably not going to include a broom that talks in a shrill voice and is always beating the protagonist about the head.
However, the aforementioned broom might fit in perfectly in a fanciful caper story with a flying carpet and dialogue that sounds more like it comes from the modern era.
If your first scene is dark and somber, the book is going to be dark and somber. If your first scene is high-octane action, the book is going to be high-octane action. If your first scene includes some surrealist shit with a clown, four apples cut into the shapes of various animals and somebody flossing....well damn we better buckle up because this is gonna be an acid trip.
And if it's not, you did it wrong. Sorry. That's what editing is for.
They have to introduce characters. - Some first scenes don't have the protagonist but they should introduce somebody. A lot of mysteries start with a murder so you get a brief glimpse of the bad guy through the eyes of a victim before the story begins and you ever actually get your sleuth. But the bad guy is a character so it counts.
If nobody in the first scene continues to be a character later in the story...you probably have a prologue. Those have different rules. The first actual scene though. Someone should be in it that stays in it. We want to know who we're spending time with as early on as possible.
They have to introduce the main conflict. - Think about your plotline and its conflicts like a russian matryoshka doll for a second. You have to open the biggest one before you get to the smaller ones. You also have to close the smaller ones back up before you close the biggest one or the smaller pieces get left outside the doll and that's just weird.
Open your main conflict. You can have other conflicts inside it but the story is "Main Conflict Begins - Other Things - Main Conflict Ends". When the main conflict ends your story is over, Giles. When the main conflict starts, your story starts. At the very least hint at your conflict.
Harry Potter begins with recently orphaned Harry being doorstopped at his Aunt's house.Voldemort doesn't have to be there because the effects of his actions are; this child is an orphan and it's his snakey fault. The series ends with him getting his cloaca handed to him and the world being saved.
The big conflict is your story.
The conflict you want to write most is the big conflict.
Seriously, if the conflict you want to write about is whether or not your characters are going to hook up, do yourself and all of us a favor and go write a romance. It's not a dirty genre and it's not a dirty word and the readers over there /really want your book/.
They have to introduce your world. - Big deal for those of us in Sci-Fan. Not as big a deal for those of us in other genres?
The world The Walking Dead is set in is a very different version of our world from the one Shawn of the Dead is set in in spite of both of them being zombie stories.
Similarly, the world Desperate Housewives is set in is a very different version of our world from the one Brooklyn 99 is set in.
And guess what. They're all this world. They're not Narnia or some shit. But guess what else? The rules are different.
Characters can be suddenly maimed with permanent consequences in The Walking Dead. It is, in fact, expected. There is going to be gruesome gore. People do /awful/ things to each other.
If someone woke up missing a limb in Brooklyn 99 and found out people had eaten it, that would just be way off flavor. It's against the rules of the setting. But similarly you wouldn't see a bunch of adults going higher and higher on the extra scale trying to commit a clever heist in The Walking Dead; it isn't a setting where cutting back to an "Oh, but I already foiled this plot twenty minutes ago while you weren't looking" is allowed.
You see what I mean? Even if the world you're writing is Earth, you have to establish rules for it. In the very beginning is a good place to do that.
"This is a setting where people carry swords around and there's a good reason for that."
"This is a setting where vampires exist."
"This is a setting where the dead come back to life sometimes."
Establish it early and your readers will believe in it. Everything you want to use, you have to establish in the first half of the book so readers don't think you're cheating in the second half. Have your characters mention it, even if it sounds like a joke. Have the rifle sitting over the mantle in the first scene and let the characters talk about it so when Shawn grabs it in the last scene no one is like "BS that was convenient."
And if you don't know what your characters are going to use in the last scene just be aware that you're going to have to go back and edit to establish this stuff.
Endings coming another time. <3
Megan R. Miller