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Wednesday, July 18

4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The opening scene of a novel walks a fine line between piquing curiosity and confusing the reader.


Opening scenes are under a lot of pressure—they need to pique reader interest, set the scene, introduce characters, and give just enough information to intrigue, but not overload or confuse. That’s a lot to ask of 250 words.

In our efforts to hook readers and not give everything away, it’s common for an opening scene to be less than forthcoming with information. We hold back details to sound mysterious, we hide clues we worry will reveal too much, we keep our narrative distance, and sometimes, we even bend over backward not to provide the exact details readers need to become hooked.

Let’s take a look at an opening that’s working too hard to hook without sharing any information:
He waited in the shadows, watching. The trees creaked in the wind blowing in from the north, not unusual for this time of year. He had a solid view of below, except for the part he was most interested in.

It wasn’t just a game to him, not since that night in Jersey when everything changed, and not all of it for the better. It was time to do something about it.

He left the shadows and cut around back, sliding between two cars parked in the grass. There wasn’t much time before they returned, and he had to make it before the plane landed. He reached into his jacket pocket and gripped the small, hard square. He could do this.

In his back pocket, something vibrated and he pulled out his phone. On the screen, a text.

Well?

He typed back. Patience.

Some things couldn’t be rushed.

He noted the time—behind schedule. Some things could be rushed a little.

Thirty more steps and he reached the door, thankfully unlocked. Those six beers at the bar the night before had paid off. Inside, the room was dark, no one around at all.

Dragging over a chair, he sat down, pulled out the box, and waited.
As a generic opening scene, this isn’t that bad on first glance. There’s something going on, it has a ticking clock, there’s some suspense. But if you look closer, you’ll realize I haven’t said a darn thing about the story or anything important at all.

Can you tell what genre it is? Do you know where this is set? Do you know what the POV character is trying to do or why? Do you even know if this is the protagonist or not? It feels like it ought to grab you, but imagine another few pages of this. Would you still be intrigued?

Probably not, because there’s no actual story here to grab your attention. You can’t tell what it’s about because even I have no clue and I wrote it.

But as a template, it has potential, because it does have a few good bones to work with. What it’s missing, are the story details that will take this from confusing to intriguing.

Let’s look at four warning signs that your opening scene is too vague or confusing to hook readers:

1. There are little to no specific details about the setting.


Confusing opening scenes keep the setting vague and use general terms that make sense to the person writing it, but not to anyone reading it.

What do we know about this opening?
There are trees (but not what kind), wind blowing in from the north (but not north of what or what it’s blowing in off of), that wind is common this time of year (but not what time of year it is), there’s a view of below (but below what? And not what that is), there are shadows (but no hint if it’s nighttime or daytime). The only solid detail we have is that it’s not Jersey.

(Here’s more on choosing the best words to describe your setting)

2. There is no obvious goal or intent to act.


It’s not uncommon for goals to be left a little fuzzy at first to pique curiosity, but there should at least be a sense of what the person is doing.

What do we know about the goals of this character? He’s waiting (but not why), he’s interested in something below (but not what or why), he wants to do something about whatever changed in Jersey (but no clue what any of that means), he has to do it before a plane lands (but no idea how the plane fits into what’s going on), his goal possibly involves a small, hard square (no clue what that is), he used beer the night before possibly to get a door unlocked (but none of that is clear), and someone is waiting for the results of whatever he’s doing (but no idea who, what, or why). The only goal we know for sure, is that he’s waiting for someone.

(Here’s more on the problem with vague character goals)

3. There are no character names used.


The lack of a name in an opening scene almost always gives off a “this person isn’t actually important” vibe. It’s a vague shape of a person, not a character, and often an unnamed character signals a prologue or outside view of a non-POV character or protagonist.

What do we know about this character? He’s a guy who’s waiting, that’s it. No clue on age, ethnicity, reason for being there, no idea how important this character is to the story, or even how this character fits into the story. He could be the protagonist, antagonist, or just some random guy that triggers the inciting event and is there to create a fake hook.

(Here’s more on naming characters)

4. There are little to no internal thoughts or narrative.


Characters think about what they’re doing and interact with the world around them. Those internal thoughts help readers understand who the characters are and why they’re acting in a scene. The internal thoughts help ground readers in the story and gives them a character to connect with and relate to.

What internal thoughts do we see here? Only two lines have potential, and it’s just as likely they’re part of the narrative and not internal thoughts at all—Some things couldn’t be rushed, and Some things could be rushed a little. Maybe this is the character, maybe not.

(Here’s more on writing internalization)

Let’s see what happens when we pick a genre and add some context to this scene. What if this was…

A Romance Novel
Marc waited in the evening shadows outside Lila’s house, watching. The trees creaked in the wind blowing in off the beach, not unusual for Nantucket this time of year. He had a solid view of the rear porch below, except for the kitchen door—the only room that mattered right now.

Flirting with Lila over lunch wasn’t just a game to him, not since that night in Jersey when she’d touched his hand and smiled in a way that was not at all platonic. So what if she was getting married tomorrow? The guy was a jerk and she knew it, hell, she’d cried about it on his very shoulder just three days ago. As the saying went, he’d better speak now or forever hold his peace.

He left the shadows and cut around the back of the neighbor’s house, sliding between two cars parked in the side yard. There wasn’t much time before Lila and her fiancĂ© got back from the mainland. Any minute, her father’s seaplane would land off the beach behind the house. He reached into his jacket pocket and gripped the small, black box he’d blown his meager savings on. He could do this.

In his back pocket, his phone vibrated and he pulled it out. On the screen, a text from Lila’s maid-of-honor and his partner in crime.

Well?

He typed back. Patience.

Some things couldn’t be rushed.

He noted the time—damn, behind schedule. Maybe some things could be rushed a little.

Marc slid down the dunes, getting sand in his shoes and down his jeans. Thirty more steps later he reached the back door, thankfully unlocked. Those six beers at the bar last night with Lila’s brother had paid off. Inside, the kitchen was dark, no one around at all. Thank you, Larry.

Dragging over a chair, he sat down, pulled out the ring box, and waited for Lila to come home.
The details add another layer to this opening, and even though there are still questions hanging in the air, the gist of the scene and story are clear—a guy is about to propose to a woman who’s getting married in the morning. We know it takes place on Nantucket, and Lila’s friend and possibly brother is all for stopping her marriage. We also know Marc is impulsive, in love, and a little nuts for doing this, but you have to admire him taking such a risk. There’s also a hint that Lila has money, while Marc does not, suggesting further conflict to this situation and setting up Marc as the underdog to root for.

Now let’s pretend this is a thriller…
Meyers waited in the shadows of the control tower, watching the parking lot of the small air field empty out. The pine trees creaked in the winter wind blowing in off Lake Michigan. He had a solid view of the runway below, except for Dunbar’s office. Working late. Figured the dumbass would make it easier.

It wasn’t a game anymore. Dunbar had crossed a line in Jersey by tipping off that coked-out merc, and his cry of “no bodily harm, no foul,” wasn’t going to erase losing six months of surveillance work. Meyers grinned as the last car drove away. Payback time, old buddy. It wasn’t often he got to mix business with pleasure.

He left the shadows and cut around behind the hanger, sliding between two fuel trucks parked in the grass. There wasn’t much time before Dunbar’s boss returned, and he had to be in place before his plane landed. He reached into his jacket pocket and checked the box the doc had given him. Piece of cake. He could do this job one handed.

In his back pocket, his phone vibrated and he pulled it out. On the screen, a text.

Well?

He typed back. Patience.

Some things couldn’t be rushed.

He noted the time—behind schedule. Yeah, all right, some things could be rushed a little.

Thirty steps later he reached the tower door, unlocked as promised. Those six beers with the janitor at the bar the night before had paid off. Inside, the lobby was dark, no one around at all.

Dragging over a chair, he sat down, pulled out the syringe and the vial, and waited.
Same scene, but it has a different tone now. This is no longer about love, but revenge, and possibly a kidnapping. It’s not yet clear what Meyers and Dunbar do for a living, but it’s pretty clear they’re probably on the wrong side of the law, or deep in the gray areas around it. There’s bad blood between these two, and Meyers is using this job to get his revenge.

Finally, let’s write this as a contemporary young adult novel…
Tyler waited in the shadows of the announcer’s box, watching the guys who regularly kicked the crap out of him get the crap kicked out of them on the football field. The old oaks creaked in time with the tackles, though nobody cared about the wind, just the scoreboard so close to the championship. From up here, he had a solid view of testosterone, except for the gonad he was most interested in—Brad.

See, football wasn’t just a game to good old Brad, not since that FSU scout gushed all over him in Jersey. It hadn’t even been a real game either, just exhibition, but to hear Brad talk—he was headed down to sunny Florida and a full college ride. Neither of which he deserved. He wouldn’t have even been playing in that game if he hadn’t slipped those pills into Skyler’s iced tea. Brad should have gotten suspended, not his brother.

Tyler left the shadows and cut around the back of the bleachers, sliding between two cars parked in the grass under the clear “NO PARKING” signs. Only two minutes left on the clock, then a sea of cheering Wildcats would spill out into the parking lot. He reached into his jacket pocket and gripped the tiny baggie full of justice. He could do this.

In his back pocket, his phone vibrated and he yanked it out.

Well? the text read.

He typed back. Patience, bro.

Some things couldn’t be rushed.

The crowd went wild and the touchdown horn blew. Okay, some things could be rushed a little.

He checked the door of Brad’s car, thankfully unlocked. Way to go, Daniels, you talented ex-con to be. That six pack of beer he’d snatched from his dad the night before had been well spent.

Pulling out his phone, he sat down out of sight, called in an anonymous tip, and waited.
This version has a different feel as well, even though it’s also a bit of a revenge story. Tyler is out to avenge his brother Skyler, and possibly frame Brad for messing up Skyler’s life or football scholarship chances. While I dropped the plane detail, I stayed true to the idea of the opening. We can see Tyler is a loyal brother, he’s picked on by Brad and possibly others on the team despite his brother being part of it, he’s resourceful and a little sneaky to have devised this plan, and he wants justice for his brother. It takes place up north most likely, though the exact details aren’t clear—but likely near Jersey if they have exhibition games there in high school, and it’s “down” to Florida. We can hear Tyler’s voice and see how he thinks, and we can guess where this story is likely to go based on this page.

The specifics in a story are what make readers interested in reading that story. Confusing openings that hide the reasons to keep reading may sound mysterious and intriguing—especially to the writers who write them—but to readers without that knowledge, they’re just confusing.

Give your readers reasons to turn the page. Show them why your book is the one they want to read.

For fun…revise my vague example with your own details in the comments. What can you bring to this confusing opening?

Have you ever read a confusing opening like my example? Have you ever written one? 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
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Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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12 comments:

  1. I'm not sure where Marc is. He's outside a house but looking down on a porch as if he's inside the house looking out a window.

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  2. I'm sure I've written a few confusing openings. Thanks for the examples. They're very helpful.

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  3. Love how your examples really bring your point home. Choosing the right details for each story made them come alive.

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  4. I want to read the rest of the thriller!!!

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    1. LOL cool :) Maybe I'll have to add it to my "to write" list

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  5. This could be an easy mistake to commit. You land a hook, but not substance (a hook without bait?). Great post!

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    1. I thin it happens a lot when the writer is trying to hook the reader, but not thinking about engaging the reader in the story.

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  6. This gives me something to double-check in my opens, so thank you. Also, I found the romance version rather interesting.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it. The examples are fun to write, but they can be challenging!

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