Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rewriting the Opening. Again.

Posted by Susan Kaye Quinn

How does your novel open?

My YA Paranormal novel opens in the hallway of a High School. Unfortunately, this is apparently a cliche, right up there with getting ready for school in the bedroom/bathroom, having a car crash, dream sequence, waking up, regaining consciousness, or weather of any kind.

An argument commenced in my head about how my cliche was different from other cliches and that my cliche was necessary and truly the only and best way to open the story. After all, it had all the other correct elements:

Except for one ...

  • Start your character in a setting that defines who they are

The argumentative side of me, the part that doesn't like to be wrong, continued to lobby for the hallway: But it does define who she is, she's a high school student after all.

Yeah. Right. If that was her major characteristic, we'd be writing a whole different kind of story (my arguing side and myself).

So I went and looked at the opening scenes of novels I had recently read (and admired) and one I didn't (admire).

Behemoth: Starts with a fencing duel between the two MC's, who continue to duel (figuratively) throughout the story

The White Cat: Starts in mortal danger on the top of a roof, which presages the danger his abilities cause him

Paranormalcy: Starts with her killing a vampire, because she's sort of a Buffy-the-Vampire slayer type. But in pink.

Uglies: Starts with her creeping through the bushes to illegally break into Pretty Town.

AND THE ONE I DIDN'T LIKE: Starts in the High School hallway.

Gah! I hate being wrong.

So, the opening is going to have to change. And I'm slowly, grumblingly, adverbly deciding that it's a good thing. It is forcing me to stretch to define who my character is, what my story is, and how can that all be artfully captured in an opening scene that will intrigue and pull in the reader?

Note that none of the examples above starts with the main conflict, but they all reflect an aspect of the main conflict, which is revealed later on. I think that's important, because I think there is too much advice out there about openings that say Start with the conflict! Throw your character in media res! I think we need to know who our character is before the main conflict, else we won't give a switch how much trouble they're in when it arrives. But starting with some conflict, one that hints at the true conflict, is artful indeed. As Richard Peck says, "The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise."

So, yeah. I can do this. But it may make my brain hurt for a little while.

How do you decide how to start your novel?


  1. The first lecture at my first writer's workshop was all about how to begin a novel. I'll never forget what the speaker said. The first sentence should define the book in some way. The first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter should do the same. Set the tone. Open the door and say, "Come on in!"

    But I don't sit down and say, "I will now come up with a scene that accomplishes all this." I let my mind run around, trying out different approaches, and then when I get the right vision, something that shows the reader A LOT, clearly, in one sentence, one paragraph, one page, and one chapter, then I sit down to the keyboard and give it a try.

  2. Yup, thought I had all that going on, except for the setting. Now, I think I may try out a couple different approaches and see which one I like best. :)

  3. It is so funny that you are posting this right now. In fact, I almost emailed you yesterday to ask your advice about exactly this - my beginning! They are so important, despite being such a small sample of the overall story. My beginning starts with action, with my naughty MC being naughty. I like it. I love it. It isn't getting any requests. Argh!

  4. I am rewriting the beginning of my opening as well. Alpha readers say they want more, but its hard to figure out what to put in without too much backstory. I didn't realize there were cliched beginnings, but that is good to know.

  5. @Shannon We should swap firsties and see if we can help each other out! :)

    @Jessica I knew about some of the cliches, but just the more generic ones (weather, waking up) not the ones specific to YA. I'm not sure who decides what the cliches are, but it's good to look for hints from agents in your genre to see what irks them. Don't want to irk the agents! :)

  6. Hi, Susan. You're so cute. I always enjoying reading your posts! I start my posts with an important event happening to my MCs. I find that it's usually an internal conflict sorta thang. Hmmm, I should open my WiPs and see what sort of conflict starts it.
    Great post! :)

  7. @Elizabeth :) Thanks! Aaaand: a YA cliche list Just in case you wanted to know. :)

  8. Susan, boy it sure takes a lot of courage to rewrite a beginning. I've got to hand it to you for bucking up and tackling it. Best of luck and I hope you post it when it's done!

  9. On another group blog, once upon a time, we had a contest where we had to get ten cliches in the first page of a novel. It was fun.

  10. @Jonene Thanks for the encouragement! The arguing was a lot more difficult than the actual doing of it. :)

    @Rebecca That sounds great (also painful)! Also: I'm realizing that it's not entirely setting in those examples, more the action that the MC is taking that is defining who they are. Still sifting through this in my mind ...

  11. Hi, Susan!

    I would LOVE to swap firsties! Here's my email, so you can send me yours if you want to. Fun!!

    mrso_d at yahoo dot com

  12. @Shannon Awesome! I will pretty it up and send it tomorrow. :)

  13. I usually write my first chapter when I'm mostly done with the book. I mean, there's a placeholder chapter there, but I need to know what the elements of the story really are before I can lay them out in chapter 1, so I don't stress about the first chapter when I start writing. I just start writing.

  14. I love your first chapter check list! What a great tool. I especially love the one about start with a setting that defines your character. Sweet stuff.

    I also agree with Emily, I never write my real chapter one until the book is done. I need the whole book before me to know where to really start. I just put something down that I know is going into the trash. It's just words to have a strating point, but the real start comes after I end it all. :) Great post.

  15. @Emily Exactly! This first chapter is really on it's 3rd or 4th rewrite now ... :)

    @Leisha And this was definitely a "kill your darlings" kind of rewrite because I was so in love with that first line! Oh well.


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