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These are my writing posts from my former blog, spanning 2009-2012. To see new writing posts, click on the blog tab above. To see these archived post organized by topic, click "For Writers" above.

Entries in opening chapter (4)


A Litmus Test for Your Opening Scene



So as I mentioned last week, I've been judging for my local RWA's chapter contest. And the thing about contests is that, as a contestant, you're only submitting a limited number of pages--usually around 25-35 pages--simulating the partial submission to an agent/editor. Therefore, as a judge I'm giving feedback not just on mechanics and craft stuff, but on the overall BIG DEAL question--am I hooked? When I hit page thirty and it ends, do I want to read more?
Well, what I'm finding is that many times someone may be really strong in mechanics and craft and even voice, but the first chapters are either all backstory (which I talked about last week) or are too much showing of every day life. Let's meet the MC's friends, their family, let's describe what everyone looks like and what his or her house is like, etc. Then maybe by chapter three, let's get to the "good stuff".
Now I'm a proponent of getting a glimpse into the ordinary life. It can work really well and in movies that's a very important component. Almost always, the opening images of a movie are the MC's ordinary life. We see how this person's life is right now so we can feel the impact of the big change/turning point/etc. However, here's the key: it's a glimpse. Meaning VERY brief.   
No one else is going to make it to chapter three's "good stuff" if nothing has really happened up until then. I'm reading it all because I'm a judge, but the agent or editor has already moved on. You have to get the story moving now. 
So what does that opening scene need?
One of my favorite writing books Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan Rosenfeld (If you don't have it, get it. The book breaks down the elements of a scene and also goes over types of scenes--dramatic/contemplative/action/flashback etc.) Anyway, the book also has a great litmus test for what needs to be present in an opening scene.
Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time
Litmus Test for an Opening Scene

I'll put my novel to the test as well as an example.
1. A challenge to your protagonist's status quo.
My MC finds out she's going to have to work with her ex-boyfriend--the only guy to ever really break her heart.



2. An antagonist for your character to encounter. (Doesn't have to be THE antagonist.)
My hero is the antagonist in the first chapter, but then my heroine finds out her sister has gone missing in the next scene. Therefore, the true antagonist is the person behind her sister's disappearance.



3. Introduce your protagonist's immediate intentions.
My heroine intends to ignore the ex-boyfriend and their history and just treat him like a stranger.



4. A glimpse into your MC's history/personality/motivation.
I open with a "glimpse into ordinary life" with my MC at the end of a really bad date. It's very brief and I don't even name the guy she's having dinner with, but we get a feel for her current life and her voice during the two paragraph encounter.



5. The protagonist makes a decision that leads immediately to more complications.
The person who makes a decision in my first chapter is actually the hero (my romance has two protagonists--hero and heroine have equal POV time). So my hero decides to follow my  heroine after she gets a frantic call from her sister and leaves the party. This of course leads to the main suspense thread of the plot because they both show up and find the sister missing. Oh, and guess who is the only person who can help the heroine find the sister? Yep, the hero. :)



Therefore, even though my opening scene is only one layer of the story and doesn't introduce the suspense plot and the big turning point until the next chapter, all these basic points have been hit. It's enough conflict and action to whet the appetite to keep turning the page (hopefully!) and see how much more complicated things are going to get. 

What do you think? Are these components a good summary of what you like to read/write in an opening scene? Think back to your favorite books or movies, do they follow these guidelines? Can you think of any other "must haves" in an opening?


*This is a revamped post from 2009


Story Beginnings: Agent and Publisher Opinions


Alien pod plants
Photo by Dave Gingrich (click pic for link)
Last week I talked about the opening sentence. You guys had a great debate in the comments, so it's clear that we all have different opinions. So, in lieu of so many of you starting a new story for NaNoWriMo, I thought I would share some of the tidbits from Hooked that the author got straight from agents and editors.  
What beginning makes them stop reading?


  • You didn't get them on page one. We need to have them at hello.
  • Starting with backstory or a static character introduction.
  • Hooking the reader with something that has nothing to do with the story--a gotcha.
  • Not clearly identifying the POV character--sex, age, etc.
  • Starting with weather, scenery, dreams, waking up for the day, or a passive scene (any description should be about movement).
  • Too much tell not enough show.
  • Pulling a bait and switch--i.e. having an opening that is dark and serious then jumping to a chick litty voice in the next scene/chapter.
  • Clunky sentences, bad grammar, hemorrhaging adverbs, etc. One editor said that if sentence one isn't good, why should he expect it's going to get any better with sentence two. Others said that by the end of the first page, they know if the person can write or not.
So what should you do to get them to turn the page?
  • Start with people--novels are not about scenery
  • Don't open with a villain. You want your readers to connect with your protagonist first. (An agent admitted that many established authors do this, but it's typically in series where the reader is already familiar with the protagonist.)
  • Starting in the middle of the action.
  • Having an irresistible hook.
  • Action, conflict, crisis, or danger (this from agent Janet Reid).

Additional advice from the agents/editors...
  • Don't worry about your beginning until you finish the book. Once you have a whole, it's easier to know where to start.
  • Oftentimes the first three chapters can be scrapped because it's just you working out the story for yourself.
Alright, so at least that gives us permission to write crappy beginnings the first go round. :) 
So what about you guys? What do you think of this advice? Do you have trouble finding the right place to start? Have you made any of these mistakes above?
**Today's Theme Song**
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" - U2
(player in sidebar, go ahead and take a listen)



What Kind of First Chapter Writer are You?


Chapter One. Two seemingly innocuous words. But they strike bone-chilling fear in most writers. If these first few pages fail to hook the agent/editor, your chance at getting published can fizzle in the few seconds it takes them to hit the eject button. No pressure, right?

So most of us know what a first chapter needs in theory. Starting in medias res, right in the middle off things. Hook the reader, draw them in, instantly. So why is it so hard to accomplish? According to these Harlequin editors, writers often fall into one of these first chapter categories.
The empty Book
Photo by Kazi Harok Al-Arafat (click pic for link)

The Free Spirit
This writer doesn't outline or plan, so she's not sure where her story is going, who her characters really are, or what the plot points will be. So this ends up in a meandering, unfocused first chapter.

Solution: Make sure that you revamp that first chapter dramatically after the whole story is together so that the threads are started clearly.

The Procrastinator

This writer writes her way into the story. Chapter one turns into a sea of backstory and description to set up the story instead of actually starting the story.

Solution: Often it is hard to start a story without writing out the backstory for yourself. Do this as a writing exercise, not as the first chapter. Then take the elements of that backstory and sprinkle them in throughout the story.

No-Man (or Woman's)-Land

This is related to the procrastinator. The writer spends too much time on other things and doesn't introduce the main characters until Chapter two. This is more important in some genres than others. In romance, hero and heroine should both make an appearance quickly. IMO, YA should also start with the MC. In suspense or thriller, you may have an opening incident from the killer's perspective or something so there are exceptions.

Solution: Your story is ultimately about your characters, so make sure we meet the main ones quickly. Endless description, world-building, etc. in chapter one will lose a lot of people.

Saves the Best for Last

This writer thinks that readers will hang on until chapter four or five for the main conflict/action to get going.

Solution: Start your story where it "gets good". If you find yourself saying to your beta-readers, oh just wait until you get to here... you may want to cut those first few chapters.


This writer is the storyteller so sets about telling us everything from the author's perspective instead of letting the characters talk for themselves. This separates the readers from the story.

Solution: Let the characters show the reader what's going on.

The Party Animal

This writer loves characters, lots of them, so there's a party of minor players and a swarm of names bombarding the reader in chapter one. Who's the MC? How can we tell?

Solution: Minor characters and subplots are great, but keep it to a minimum in the first chapter. The reader has to be able to identify the MCs.

The Show-Stopper

This writer knows how to write a killer opening line and scene. But after that, goes down in a blaze of glory. Think of these as that great movie preview that makes you desperate to see a film, then after you spend your 8 bucks, you realize the preview was the only good part of the movie.

Solution: Treat every chapter like the first chapter. You can lose a reader at any time. So make sure every scene is interesting, moves the plot forward, and keeps the reader wanting more.

I'm hoping that in my recent WIP, I haven't fallen into these categories. With the short length of category romance, you don't have a choice but to jump in and get thing rolling quickly. But I know with my first WIP, I definitely suffered from a combination of the Procrastinator and Saving the Best for Last.

Have you found yourself in one of these camps before? Which one do you gravitate toward if not paying attention?

Alright, now a few links:

  • Angie over at Gumbo Writer is re-launching the Rose and Thorn Journal today, which is "a quarterly literary journal featuring the voices of emerging and established authors, poets and artists." They have a free newsletter, so hop on over and check them out.
  • Editor to Rent created a list of Marks of an Amateur that they see in submissions. Really helpful.
  • And, I wanted to mention for those of you who are new to this blog that I am now marking all writing craft entries with the "writer toolbox" label. So if you want a quick link to all crafty things, click on writer toolbox in the labels box in the right sidebar. Or click here.
  • And lastly, I now have a retweet button at the bottom of each entry, so if you find an article helpful, I'd love for your to tweet me. Wait, that sounds dirty. Well, you know what I mean.
UPDATE: Just ran across this article today on what TO DO in the first chapter over at The Kill Zone. Check it out. Great stuff

Alright, that's it. Make sure you let me know what type of first chapter writer you are. :)

**Today's Theme Song**
"Kickstart My Heart" - Motley Crue
(player in sidebar--go ahead, take a listen)



The Opening Scene: A Litmus Test



Friday I blogged about opening lines and pages and their importance. (Thanks for those who gave feedback on my lines, btw!) Based on the comments I received, I am clearly not the only one who freaks out over openings. This, of course, sent me to my piles of writing books to see what the pros had to say about the opening scene.

One of my favorite writing books Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan Rosenfeld (If you don't have it, get it. The book breaks down the elements of a scene and also goes over types of scenes--dramatic/contemplative/action/flashback etc.) Anyway, the book also has a great litmus test for what needs to be present in an opening scene.
Below are the basic components. I'll put my completed novel to the test as an example and see how it goes.
1. A challenge to your protagonist's status quo.
Ex.) My MC (Willow) finds out that she's received a scholarship to a stuck-up private school out of state. She doesn't want to go. She's found her safe niche at her current school and doesn't want to mess things up.
Thoughts: I think this works. A new school and state would threaten any teen's status quo.
2. An antagonist for your character to encounter. (Doesn't have to be THE antagonist.)
Ex.) Willow's mother wants her to take the scholarship and argues with her.
Thoughts: Perhaps my antagonist and conflict could be stronger. She loves her mother, so although they argue, Willow holds back a lot.
3. Introduce your protagonist's immediate intentions.
ex.) Willow likes to blend in, to play things low key. She has to figure out a way to talk her mom out of moving her to a new school.
Thoughts: I think her intentions are pretty obvious, so this probably works.
4. A glimpse into your MC's history/personality/motivation.
ex.) Willow responses to her mother show her to be sarcastic, smart, and self-deprecating. But also loving and concerned about making her mother happy. In many ways, we see that she has taken on an adult role to offset her mother's flightiness.
Thoughts: I could probably add more heft in my opening for this component to clarify my MC's motivation
5. The protagonist makes a decision that leads immediately to more complications.
ex.) Willow decides to accept the scholarship, which of course leads to the whole rest of the story.
Thoughts: This decision changes everything in her life, so I think this works.

Okay, so putting my scene to these standards definitely shows me some holes I could work on.
What do you think? Are these components a good summary of what you like to read/write in an opening scene? Think back to your favorite books, do they follow these guidelines? Can you think of any other "must haves" in an opening?