In the Beginning

Don’t begin with weather, dreams or “happy people in happy land” as James Scott Bell puts it in The Art of War for Writers. Last week we discussed the first line, the hook: bring us in and engage us quickly. Today we talk about setting the mood of the opening scene without using “clichéd or predictable story beginnings.”

What are some of your favorite opening scenes from books? Does it involve any of the aforementioned no-no’s? I’ve read several novels that start out with the weather, but as Bell points out, they usually are tied into the characters point of view. So what makes the opening scene good? I’m sure extended descriptions of weather without a reason to care would bore us, and we wouldn’t read on. Or if we discover the beginning was a only dream, we might feel cheated and throw the book aside. The “happy people in happy land” is what Bell calls an opening that feels like “pure setup”, but the complaint is that the engaging action doesn’t happen soon enough.  If we want to use an opening like that, we must weave in a “breath of disturbance to carry us along” as Bell puts it.

So, how then shall we begin our story? How do we set the mood? Here is where art meets craft. We choose words in order to create the feeling we want the reader to walk away with. Bell gives the example from Tick Tock by Dean Koontz. The author chose words like shadow, swooped, shade, frantic, & then the character thinks he should see something but he doesn’t. Kind of gave me chills and intrigued me enough to want to read on.

So what say you? Disagree or agree? What are some other clichéd beginnings? What about prologues? Do you think they should follow the same restrictions?


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