Monday, July 07, 2008

Prologues and Openings

The life of the writer is not just champagne, launch parties and celebrity appearances. (My score in these three areas to date is zero, zero and one). It also involves peripheral activities like, er, writing...

For reasons which I hope are understandable, The Last Free City has taken a back seat in recent weeks. The Dog of the North has been a jealous master and, given how long it has spent in obscurity, who would deny it some time off the leash?

The break has, in any event, allowed me a useful opportunity to take stock of TLFC. I have recounted at length in previous posts the halting progress of the plot, and while these questions are not all resolved, enough of them are to make the story seem workable. A new introductory scene has been percolating for a couple of weeks, and soon I will have to mar its inchoate perfection by writing it down.

First scenes carry a particular weight. They require the balancing of more elements than any other (even including the ending, I think). The introductory scene needs not only to grab the attention, but also to introduce one or more characters and the milieu we will be inhabiting. There's a temptation to try to make opening scenes do too much. If you think your first scene can be at once page-rippingly dramatic, paint a detailed picture of your imaginary world and introduce a cast of thousands, you're probably trying to do too much. You're probably better off emphasising one aspect and hinting at others. In particular, I'd advise against trying to cram in too many key characters. If your antagonist is compelling enough, he can wait a while before we see him--indeed, the suspense of waiting for him may do part of your job for you.

Perversely, it's difficult to write the first scene first, because you're unlikely to know the characters well enough at that stage. This is the fourth novel I've embarked on, and the third to need a new opening scene (The Dog of the North is the exception--perhaps because the viewpoint character was not central to the story, it did not require reinterpretation).

Another thing about first scenes--they don't always come at the beginning. (Give 'em a paradox--it keeps 'em reading...). It's possible to write a prologue which is not in any meaningful sense an opening scene: it may very well be set in a different place, at a different time, focusing on minor characters or even ones who never reappear. A prologue is a commentary on the action to follow, not a part of it. TLFC will probably have one of these too, a scene which provides a link to The Dog of the North and a frame of reference for the story to follow. If you provide such a prologue, the scene which follows it--the first of "the real story"--is the opening scene, the one in which you have to hook the reader with what's going to happen next.

Opening scenes can be challenging: but get yours right and it's the reader's passport to the rest of the book.

6 comments:

Alis said...

How true, how true... I know that the wip needs a new first scene but the one it has at present just catapulted me into the action in the way I needed to be catapulted, as it was a second attempt at the same material from a totally different viewpoint. Now I know my character better, the first scene doesn't work at all.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm very disappointed in you, Tim. You're managing to think coherently about your new book during the launch period of your old one. I can't detect any mood swings at all. Bad show.

Tim Stretton said...

Glad to give the appearance of normality, Aliya, although I don't think it stands up to scrutiny...

My office at work is a currently a shrine to the book, two copies negligently arrayed on my desk, a loose dustjacket abutting my calculator. And guess what's on my screensaver...

I've also become obsessive about sneaking into Waterstones and seeing how many books have gone from the pile (not very bloody many).

And I can bring about an instant depression by looking at my sales ranking on Amazon, which has declined since the book was launched. Hmmf!

Aliya Whiteley said...

You're normal, then. I feel better.

Tim Stretton said...

Normal? There's a first time for everything!

Akasha Savage said...

Aaah...these opening pages!! I rewrote mine four or five times before I was truly happy...mmm...at least I think I'm happy now?
;)