Finding Your Opening Scene
Previous Parts in Plot-Character Integration are:
Part 1 - The 3/4 Point Pivot Part 1 - The Worm Turns
Part 3 - The Starring Character For A Series
And this is Part 2 of Plot-Character Integration - Finding Your Opening Scene
Chances are you have had your sizzling Science Fiction Romance novel simmering in the back of your mind for years. You know the Characters and you know when your Starring Character gets a grip on his life and acts to change everything.
You know these people so well, you just gibber when you try to tell someone about them and their influence on each other and on the World they live in.
It is a huge story, so you believe you have a Series of novels to write that story in. It is an intimidating prospect - spending 20 years writing a 25 year series with many short stories, novellas, and contributions to other people's universes sandwiched in between personal appearances. Can you handle it? If you're not quivering at the prospect, there is something you don't understand.
I couldn't begin to guess what you, in particular, are missing about understanding yourself or the world you live in.
However, I have a long-running Series of novels now with an anthology of stories by other writers, and novels I've collaborated on written by two other writers. The Sime~Gen novels are a series structured like a future history, and the Starring Character changes from one novel to the next (unbeknownst to the reader, there are a handful of Souls re-incarnating every few hundred years).
In between, I've sold several other universes, trilogies, and contributed to other writers' universes, shared universes, and so on.
And I've taught writing craft at workshops across the country, read a lot of beginning writers' first attempts, heard other professional writers and editors analyze why a manuscript could not be published, and learned much from all that.
One very common mistake beginning writers make is starting the manuscript with the wrong scene, at the wrong time in the Starring Character's life-arc, and usually at the END of the Star's story, not the BEGINNING.
Start at the beginning is the advice I've heard given many times, and the teary-eyed young writer stars in numb bewilderment utterly certain that they did start at the beginning.
The contact with the young writer usually ends there, so most of these earnest young people never make it to print unless they self-publish and become more bewildered about why their work doesn't click with their intended readership.
The reason new writers make this error in starting-point, and subsequent plot-errors is that they know their Starring Character and his or her entire LIFE is well known, so well known, so real, so involving, that none of the plot-alterations suggested by the editor or teacher in a workshop are acceptable.
"He wouldn't do that!" is the stock response signaling you are dealing with an amateur who will never sell anything. "She couldn't bring herself to do this!" "That can't happen in this world!"
The reason you can't find the "correct" (e.g. commercially salable) opening scene, thus middle and ending scenes, is that the alternate reality in which these Characters "live" and the destiny of the Characters is already known to you. It just has to be the way you've already imagined it - because that' just plain the RIGHT story you have to tell. It's right. It just is right, and so it can't be changed.
Why have you created an entire story, a universe, which is commercially non-viable, or seems so to professionals?
It could well be that you have not spent enough time training your subconscious to recognize the shape and rhythm of real life, and how that reality becomes symbolized, condensed, and portrayed rather than related by writers creating fiction.
There is a relationship between a fictional Character's life-arc and story-arc, and the "Arc" humans live.
Lives have shapes - not everyone's life is shaped just like another's life, and even those with lives shaped very much the same will have vastly different outcomes because the PERSON living the life is unique.
Nevertheless, everyone who knows a lot of people, engages in gossip or social chit-chat, and/or reads lots of biographies, knows a lot of life-shapes that are real.
To get your reader to suspend disbelief and enter your Science Fiction Romance universe, you need to convince them (on page 1) that your made-up universe is REAL.
The writing tool that conveys that conviction is what I've called in these blogs "verisimilitude" -- some element in your made-up world is just like the reality in the reader's real world (or what the reader of that target readership believes is reality).
One tool for injecting verisimilitude into Page 1, is Character Arc. The Character must be moving along a trajectory and with a velocity that the reader immediately recognizes as something they have seen in reality.
Everything else in your opening scene can be purest Fantasy, utterly impossible, and definitely not-real, as long as there is one anchor point for the reader to recognize and accept.
Verisimilitude and Symbolism can be used to create that anchor point.
Here are some discussions of the use of Verisimilitude.
And using symbolism to explain why we cry at weddings:
When the Starring Character's Character Arc is fully integrated with the Plot, (and I mean fully), the verisimilitude of the Character's movement from one Place in his Life-Story to another Place in his Life-Story will pull the reader into your novel.
This fully integrated Plot-Character element is often referred to as a "narrative hook" -- which, to a beginning writer, is a meaningless term. It is a meaningless term not because the writer is a beginner, but because the term doesn't actually mean anything at all -- it just sounds like it does.
You already know your Characters, the story of how they meet, how they get involved, what outside forces end the Honeymoon, who gets in what trouble and has to be rescued by whom. You know how they embark on their Series of Potent Dramas (as Detectives for NYPD or Scientists for NASA, or CIA operatives).
You know who your people are and what story you need to tell. So what narrative? What quality of "hook" (twisted? What hook?) does the term Narrative Hook refer to?
You look over the whole life-history of your characters and find nothing nothing twisted and no narrative in sight.
Anything you invent as the opening will be made-up on the spot in the workshop, and just too unreal to work for your novel. Right there, your well known, vibrant Romance morphs into something else entirely, something unsatisfying and uninteresting to write.
The opening words, the opening sentence, the first line of your novel is just that integral to the entire rest of it. Everything depends on the opening words. Everything.
It is so much the cornerstone of the work, contains all the rest of the words in that one single (hopefully short, declarative or interrogative sentence) that when a workshop finds a problem with the Middle or 3/4 point or even the ending, the writing teachers will tell you to rewrite THAT scene they find problematic, but nothing you can do will fix the problem they see. Nothing!
Why? Because the problem is not in the scene they trip over.
The problem on page 312 is on page 1.
It is Page 1 that has to be rewritten, not page 312.
Trust me. It is always the case.
I thought it was a special case with my first novel, House of Zeor,
Read the "Look Inside" to see the opening I'm talking about here.
House of Zeor is the foundation novel for the Sime~Gen Series which is still running.
I ended up rewriting that opening page a couple dozen times, and moving the opening scene up and down the timeline of the Plot about 5 times. I was trying to craft a "narrative hook" -- after studying the term and its applications for many years.
It took a long time after I sold House of Zeor to Hardcover until I understood there is no such thing as a "Narrative Hook."
But that's what I learned crafting that opening - and since the novel stayed in print for 20 consecutive years, maybe I figured something out.
After that 20-year run in print, a short hiatus, and it came back into print from a publisher doing Omnibus editions - then moved to Wildside Press where it is in print as paper, audiobook, and e-book in all formats. Something went right in that opening -- people still recommend House of Zeor as a first Sime~Gen novel even though there are 14 other volumes to choose among.
They say, "Write something interesting." What's interesting to you isn't interesting to anyone else in this world because you are unique. What matters to you doesn't matter to anyone else.
They say, "Write your main character in the fury of Action, make the Character MOVE."
That's good advice, but ruins everything in a "Love at First Sight" opening. The shock of first sight paralyzes all movement, which is the tell-tale signature of the Plot Event "First Sight."
I used Character Movement as the opening line in House of Zeor, pacing impatiently, worriedly, annoyingly, but pointlessly back and forth.
Pacing doesn't really work too well as an opening, but the Starring Character who is pacing is impatient to be off on horseback to rescue his Soul Mate. So it does the job of establishing verisimilitude.
The story I wanted to tell is about the Starring Character's future incarnations. I had several incarnations at different points in History (from circa 1700 to 3700 level technology) after this lifetime.
The Soul's soul-lesson of the House of Zeor lifetime is about his HEA with his Soul Mate being thwarted by the torrential forces of History. His Soul's Destiny was what interested me - couldn't sell that back then.
I used pacing back and forth because movement was touted as a requirement of the Narrative Hook. Pacing is a show-don't-tell for the invisible tension of impatience.
Pacing, and being snapped at for it by your boss, leads the reader to ask why this Character is impatient. The reader doesn't need to be told what impatience is. This is a Character at a point in his Character-Arc where an anticipated Event is not-happening-now.
Everyone has experienced this Situation - some pace, some snap at people, some twist paperclips. Everyone knows impatience - it is verisimilitude.
I didn't write something "interesting" -- I wrote something curious.
Science fiction is all about satisfying a scientific curiosity (which is why Spock became a Starring Character.)
So just as the term "atom" was invented to designate the smallest indivisible particle of matter, "narrative hook" was a term invented to designate the indivisible, rock solid formula opening for a story or novel.
And just as atoms have been split, and even the particles composing atoms have been split and analyzed, so too the "narrative hook" decomposes into small parts.
Atoms actually exist, but aren't indivisible.
Narrative Hooks actually exist, but aren't indivisible.
Narrative Hooks don't actually need any narrative in them at all. And hooking is not a great idea if you respect your readers. You want to invite your reader by displaying your sympathetic understanding of their life experience.
Thus, the Hung Hero (absolutely unsellable as science fiction) is an invitation to certain readers. The Hung Hero is a Starring Character who has no options for acting to change the Situation.
Usually, beginning writers make a Hung Hero by choosing the wrong Character to Star in the story.
But in real life, most of us live long-long years as "hung hero" of our own story -- nothing we do seems to fix our problems. We know that feeling. And in many well-known, famous lifetimes, we see how the hung-situation breaks only when the Hero "is forced to" do something out of character.
Many great Romance novels use the outside-forces forcing the reluctant Hero to do something -- but in Science Fiction genre, that won't work as an opening. It often works as a Middle, which is the lowest point, or as the 3/4 Worm Turns point.
But your viewpoint characters, your Stars, have to be on the active pole, not passive. They have to want, decide, and act to achieve.
The paradigm for the Character on the Positive Pole is "Consider-Evaluate-Decide-Act." As the Character does that sequence - the plot just happens, it just rolls on out as the Story drives the plot. The Character Arc drives the Story.
When all these separate components are "integrated" into one single thing, the writing teachers throw up their hands and term it a "Narrative Hook." "Once upon a time, ..." is a narrative hook. It implies a Character in a different Time did something for a reason you need to understand. It prompts the question, "What happened?"
"What happened?" is the hook, or more specifically, the Invitation. Open on something that sparks curiosity in your reader. Open at the point where the Starring Character doesn't understand anything about the Life Lesson about to come smashing into his life. Make the reader ask that question right there at the beginning sentence. Make the Starring Character's quest for the answer into both Plot and Story -- integrated.
The opening scene presents the issue to be Considered and Evaluated by the Character whose actions will change the Situation.
Other Characters who merely influence or support the Star may have their own Stories - but those aren't the stories you are telling. One novel - one story with one Main Plot and one crystal clear thematic statement uniting the work of Art.
Lives well lived in reality are also "works of art." Living Well is an art form, and that is something the educated reader knows, but may not know they know.
The best open door invitation into a well built World will be fabricated from bits and pieces of what the reader knows but does not know she knows.
So how do you find the Character in your world who is crafting a work of art from his Life?
Look at real-life. Look at life-stories of real people. (and/or study Astrology).
Then look at the kind of fiction you prefer to read.
Sift out the Character Arc shapes.
Note the life-stages we are all familiar with. Each stage has its specific readership you can target because they happen at 10 or 20 year intervals if you should live so long. The HEA plateau is not notable on this list, but a phenomenon of the flat Character Arc interval. More on that is in Part 3 of the Plot-Character Integration series.
A) Character is learning and/or being Trained
B) Character is venturing into using Training. (first solo drive, first solo piloting of a plane, first infiltration on a spy mission). First Testing. Loss of virginity.
C) Having racked up a resume of failures, being fired, getting jailed, a lawyer who loses too many cases, Character goes on the bum, hits the skids, becomes homeless, hits bottom.
D) Character remakes himself - as arch criminal mastermind, business entrepreneur, or goes to police academy, gets other schooling, volunteers to be a pioneer settler on another world.
Science Fiction genre requires (usually, not always) a Hero on the way UP in life - deciding and acting to improve himself and others.
The downward spiral of failure is of interest in developing the Character's past - but is a series of novels in itself, and not amenable to use as Science Fiction or Romance. A Romance for such a Character would be the turning point into another phase of existence.
The flat Character Arc - where the Character doesn't learn or change because of Plot Events - is the formula for the Starring Character in a long Series such as a Detective Series.
We discuss that flat-arc in Part 3, but for now search your fictional worlds for the Character Springboard where the Starring Character dives off a cliff or leaps to grab the skids of a rescue helicopter.
Find your Starring Character by finding the Character in the ensemble of the novel who is about to take a risk. Changing your life is a risk. Success requires a risk, but not all risks lead to success. Both Science Fiction and Romance are about a Starring Character who achieves Success - an HEA or a scientific breakthrough that saves, heals, revives others.
Show that moment of risk evaluation, and make the reader ask what the stakes are, and what the opposing force is.
The Starring Character is the one who considers, evaluates, decides and acts -- and whose actions change the Situation. Rate of change of situation = "Action." Rate of change of Situation = Pacing. And pacing is an art.
Then open the door and invite your reader to explore the issues involved in why the opposing forces are opposing.
Pose the question in your opening line without actually asking the question. Answer the question in your final line of the novel. Then write what went between.