Saturday, 16 April 2011

Writing the first scene - a checklist

In writing groups we all have our favourite 'How to write a successful novel' books. Mine is Beginnings, Middles and Ends, by Nancy Kress, because most writers are good at one or two of these, but rarely all three - the 'middle' is a danger point for any writer. But it is the beginning that is critical these days to attract an agent or publisher, and of course the reader, too. Most readers when thumbing through a book will read the first line, the first paragraph, or the first page, and most E-stores now allow you to read the start of books. If you don't hook the readers there and then, they will put your book down and pick up the next interesting cover...

Here's my own checklist adapted from Nancy's book:

First Scene
  1. Does the first sentence hint at some (future) conflict?
  2. First paragraphs – an individualised character, with fresh, specific details, in conflict? Telling details, telling us about the character.
·      Not the first details that come to mind; not more of the same old thing
·      Specificity (e.g. 'the reflected police lights on Lily’s hands')
·      Reveal that the writer has a fresh and meticulous eye
·      Details that convince the reader/editor you know what you’re talking about
·      Details that anchor your story in concrete reality
·      Good (fresh, assured) diction, no clich├ęs
·      Would 9 out of 10 people behave like this? If so, then change it!
·      What’s interesting about this person?
  1. Last paragraphs of first scene – evoke an emotion relevant to what the book is about, through detail or dialogue.
  2. Hold the first scene to three named people.
  3. End of scene – something changed from the beginning?
·      A character discovers something is more complicated than he’d hoped
·      A character learns a disturbing piece of information
·      A character arrives some place new
·      A character meets someone who will significantly alter his life
·      An event occurs that will lead to a significant change

  1. What kind of book does this first scene promise?
  2. Do you set the tone for the rest of the book, and stay true to that tone?
Not so easy, right? I just looked through a dozen books on my shelf to see which ones held up to this kind of scrutiny. Then I got to Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, a forebear of some of today's gritty crime novelists, and read the first few paragraphs. Straight away I wanted to read it again...

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