“Begin with a bang!”
Is the advice I’ve heard as a writer over and over from the very beginning.
“Kids attention spans are short.”
“Grab them from the very first line and don’t let them go!”
It seems like sound advice. Certainly there are clear advantages to beginning a book with a scene of physical action, high suspense or emotional intensity. It establishes what’s at stake at once and sets up an expectation for a fast paced, high energy plot. It can create an element of mystery or suspense. It can highlight a distinctive voice
A splashy opening is lots of fun to write and who doesn’t love a gripper of an opening line? And yet in my own writing I’ve come across a few limitations to the big bang beginning. For example, If the reader doesn’t identify with the MC right off the bat, the stakes you create won’t matter to your reader. Also there is a danger that the reader
may not know who the MC is and feel sympathy for and loyalty to a character you don’t intend them to. A power house opening can feel manipulative & jarring at best and over-wrought & silly at worst. And sometimes a very intense first scene sets an expectation that’s nearly impossible to top.
So what’s a writer to do? I have always been drawn to a high action beginning, but more and more often I’ve found myself editing out my zippy opening paragraphs or moving them a page or two into the story.
As I often do in a quandary I turn to the books of authors I admire, to stories I’ve found moving. In a quick search on novel beginnings. I chose 12 books, 10 of which were published in the last 15 years. They were all award winners and strong sellers. To my complete shock only one of the 12 had an action opening. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry begins with the main character and her friend racing home from school only to be stopped and questioned by a Nazi soldier. Two others had action scenes that started within the first 3 pages, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Heart of a Samurai by Margie Preus. And in the case of Speak the it’s a scene of great emotional intensity rather than one of action in the classic sense.
But by far my sample of best selling and award winning books did not begin with action. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie begins with an explanation of encephalitis, and its repercussions in the life of the narrator Junior. The first scene that has anything resembling action is actually a moment of incredible emotional power in which Junior’s father shoots Junior’s dog because they can’t afford to take him to the vet. The scene occurs on page 9. Holes by Louis Sachar maybe the most popular MG novel ever to win the Newberry, but it does not begin with action either. Stanley doesn’t start digging a hole until page 26.
So what are those authors doing in those precious first pages?
In every book I looked at they were introducing me to a character so unique and compelling that I cared about what happened when the high stakes action finally came into play. They opened not with a bang but with a voice–a choice well worth emulating.
So here’s my reading challenge for the week. Pick up 5 of the books you’ve read in the last year that you admired the most. Go look at the opening scene and analyze what you see there? You might be surprised. I’d love to hear about your favorite opening scenes in comments below.