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04 August 2010

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.

My wip opens with the hero arriving at a château outside Brussels late at night for a rendezvous with a contact in the French army. (The book opens shortly before Waterloo, with the British on tenterhooks about when and where Napoleon will march). The hero's rendezvous with his source is interrupted by gunfire. The scene switches between the ambush he's caught in and his wife at the ball back in Brussels, chafing at being on the sidelines. So we get both immediate action and some exposition and character set up as she interacts with people at the ball. It seems the obvious place to start the book. At least now. We’ll see if it stays that way by the time I finish the first draft...

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?

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16 Comments:

Anonymous Jane O said...

As a reader, one of my favorite openings has always been the start of Some Do Not, the first book in Ford Maddox Ford's Parade's End. It starts in a railway carriage about to take the hero — and the reader — on a journey. I've always enjoyed being led gently into the story. I'm afraid I am not a big fan of the slam-bang openings so fashionable these days.

5:10 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think openings with the protagonist going on a journey are very effective, Jane. Does the book open in the hero's pov or is it a more omniscient look at everyone in the railway carriage?

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

I think it was the hero's pov, but I'm not positive. It's decades since I read it, butt I still remember it — that must mean something!

10:53 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Someone pointed out to me recently that nearly all books start with the arrival of a stranger or the departure of the hero/heroine. (which really, when you think about it, is the same thing! It's all in the POV).

11:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Jane! And yes, I'd say it's a great sign a book is working when the opening (or anything about it) stays with one for so many years. As I said in my post, the opening of The Grand Sophy is etched in my memory (or course, I have reread the book through the years).

4:12 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What an interesting comment on book openings, Janet! I think that applies to all three of the examples in my post. "Game of Kings" opens both with the arrival of a stranger and with the hero going on on a journey (the stranger and the hero being one in the same, as you say it's all in the pov). "Beekeeper's Apprentice" opens with Russell and Holmes meeting, and Russell is relatively new to the area. The opening scene of "The Grand Sophy" sets up Sophy's arrival, and again she's both a stranger arriving in the Rivenhall family midst and the heroine going on a journey.

Thinking of my own books, "Secrets of a Lady" opens with the kidnappers, so I suppose that could be called the arrival of a stranger (they're off their usual terrain in Berkeley Square). And the opening of "Beneath a Silent Moon" that I finally settled on has an unnamed mysterious stranger slipping furtively into London. Funny in light of that comment about book openings that that's the opening I finally settled on.

I don't think either "Vienna Waltz" or my as yet untitled Waterloo book fit as neatly though. But then mysteries often open with the murder being committed or discovered, which is how they both open.

4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I prefer openings that suggest something's going on at that very moment, expressed in emphatic sentences, something like "She was definitely dead!" or "Lord, he was tired!" for example. Both instances make me ask questions and want answers to them. The more an author intrigues me, the more likely I'll be to continue reading.

Dick

8:39 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I love slow, lazy openings (a la Heyer), but they seem very hard to get past editors (and maybe readers) these days, LOL! At least in genre fiction. There is definitely a preference for the open with a bang style. Though I have noticed that some of the “big” authors in our genre don’t adhere to this style.

My books all open with a "bang" or a “hook”, even if that wasn’t the way I wrote it originally. My next one, Ripe for Pleasure, begins with There was someone in her room. No back story. No reason to care. I just hope readers will want to know who it is and why they’re there enough to read the next paragraph where you find out she doesn’t know the men and she’s very much afraid.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for commenting, Dick! I agree, a like that makes me wonder what's going on almost always pulls me into the book and gets me to keep turning the pages.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Totally agree that there's a preference for action-y openings these days, Isobel!"There was someone in her room." is definitely an opening sentence that would keep me reading. I love stories that open with a hook and then reveal character over the course of the opening action, so you're both drawn into the story and you bond with the characters. It's a tricky juggling act for a writer, though!

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Susan/DC said...

I like openings that are mini-dramas in and of themselves. Two prime examples are Deanna Raybourn's "To say I first met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body would not be quite accurate. Edward was still twitching at the time." and Diana Norman's "Penitence Hurd and the plague arrived in London on the same day." I'm not sure I got the quotes exactly right, but the sense is accurate: you are drawn immediately into the story and know that some Very Big Events are about to take place.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Hi Susan! Those are both great examples, because they establish tone (and in the Deanna Raybourn example character) as well as setting up intriguing situations that make you want to keep reading to understand the context of those intriguing lines.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I think that the opening lines of first person POV books are a whole different beast than those of third person POV books.

In 1stP POV you the ability to get right into the internal snark that you simply lack when in 3rdP POV. And when in 3rd, you have to make the decision if you're going to open directly in the POV character's POV or with an omniscient observation. While the omniscient observation/statement can be as powerful as the 1stP opening line, it always forces me to pause and wonder whose thought it is supposed to be.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great point, Isobel! I actually like omniscient openings, particularly for historicals, because you can pull back and set up the word. Sort of like starting with a wide-angle shot.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Isobel and I have had similar experiences. I always like to ease into my story, setting the atmosphere, while my agent and editors preferred the big bang theory, starting right in the middle of an exciting event. It can work both ways, but clearly my natural tendency is to build the world before I thrust my readers into it. Most of my novels have been written in first person POV, though my current wip shifts between the heroine's first person POV and third person narrative from the POV of the character with the most at stake in a given scene. In my wip it's vital for the reader to learn things the heroine doesn't know. For example, she has to blithely think that certain characters are her friends when in fact they are rooting for her to fail. She has to be clueless about the politics of the day, believing herself to be more or less outside them when in fact she is more of a pawn than she knows.

As for Other Authors' Openings, I marvel at the way Sarah Dunant, with her author's voice as strong as steel and as fascinating as a Luna moth, manages to throw us -- bang -- into the midst of a major, life-threatening event while simultaneously giving us atmosphere and character in vibrant detail. If you've read THE BIRTH OF VENUS, or IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN (and I highly recommend them), you know what I mean.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Leslie, I love books that shift between first and third person narration. It's a wonderful way to capture both the intimacy and immediacy of first-person pov with the wider scope or third person.

Totally agree about Sarah Dunant. I haven't read IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN yet, but the opening o THE BIRTH OF VENUS drew me into both the world and the plot immediately.

12:07 PM  

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