Curtain Up - Opening Scenes
I'm in the midst of the first draft of a new book, so book openings have been much on my mind. I blogged a while back about opening lines. But think that opening scenes are in there own way as important as the initial line. Where to start? In the midst of action, which plunges one into the excitement but can be confusing without plot and character details to anchor one and give one someone to root for. With the characters, which sets up the world and can engage sympathies but risks being too slow. And at what point in the story do you open a book? Where does back story leave off and “present day story” begin?
Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, begins with the exiled Francis Crawford of Lymond slipping back into Scotland. Action sequence follows action sequence, including a confrontation with Lymond’s family. We see Lymond in action, we see him from the pov of other characters, we learn about him, and we want to know more. It’s an opening that had me totally hooked, though I should say that a lot of readers (even readers who end up loving the series) have a difficult time with the first hundred pages or so of The Game of Kings. Some find it confusing. Some find Lymond unsympathetic (my mom was in that category, while to me it was clear from the first that Lymond had more complicated motivations than appeared on the surface; wanting to learn about those motivations was part of what kept me reading).
Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first book in her Mary Russell series, opens in a very different way. There’s a bit of action–Russell nearly stepping on Sherlock Holmes–but then the opening chapter becomes essentially a long dialogue between Russell and Holmes, during which they learn a great deal about each other and the reader witnesses the delicate but amazingly strong bond that begins to form between them. After that scene, I would have followed those two characters anywhere.
Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy begins with Sophy’s father, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey, calling on his sister, Lady Ombersley, and asking her to take charge of Sophy while he goes to Brazil. The first chapter is a long conversation between Sir Horace and Lady Ombersley, which sets up the family, the problems they face, and the conflicts that will drive the book. When I read The Grand Sophy, my first Heyer novel, at the age of ten (well actually my mom read it outloud to me), I was completely pulled into the world depicted. The characters seemed vivid even before they appeared on the page, and I wanted to learn more. But I’d probably be afraid to start a book with a similar scene–I’d worry it was too “talky.” Which is perhaps too bad, because it’s certainly an opening that worked for me as a reader.
I knew from the first that Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game would open on the night Colin was kidnapped. I started out in Colin’s pov, then decided I needed to set the stage of the broader world in which the book takes place more. So I added an opening in the kidnapper’s pov. The reader in introduced to Charles and Mélanie’s world through the kidnapper’s eyes, which seemed to me a good way to set up both the glittering world in which the Fraser family lives and the darkness lying beneath it. The book underwent a lot of revisions, but the opening essentially remained unchanged.
Beneath a Silent Moon on the other hand originally began in Scotland on the night of the murder. In fact, what was the original opening of the book is now the end of Chapter 13. At another point (still in the early stages of writing), the book opened with Charles and Mélanie arriving at Dunmykel, Charles's family home in Scotland. The plot changed and evolved and I realized I needed to start in London. Once I knew that, it made sense to start with the Glenister House ball. But I still wanted a darker opening. As soon as I thought that through, I wrote a prologue with an unnamed man sneaking into London. It took me a while to get there, but it now seems inevitable to me that the book begins there.
When I first began to write my recently completed book, Vienna Waltz, I opened with the hero arriving at the home of a Russian princess who may or may not be his mistress, only to find her lying on the floor of her salon with her throat cut. After a few paragraphs, I decided it would be better to open in his wife's pov and have her find her husband kneeling over the body of the woman who might or might not be his mistress. I then decided I needed to set up the murder victim, Princess Tatiana Kirsanova, so I added a prologue in her pov, followed by additional scenes which set up some of the other key characters/suspects and their relationships to Tatiana. The scene with the heroine arriving at Princess Tatiana's lodgings is still there, but it's preceded by the prologue.
What are some of your favorite opening scenes? What do you think makes them work? Writers, what are some of the challenges you’ve found in deciding where and how to open a book?