Monday, November 09, 2020

5 Ways You’re Smothering Your Reader in Your Opening Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Let’s look at how much is too much in an opening scene.

I’ve had weekly critiques on the site since 2010, and a large number of those have been opening pages. Between that, my critique groups, clients, random critiques, and of course, my own reading habits, I’ve read a lot of opening pages. And, of course, written them.

Not all have been good. Not all have been bad. Which is fine for most of those pages, as they were works in progress and that’s normal. Opening scenes are tough to get right.

One of the things I see a lot of, is trying to put too much into the story too soon. 

And instead of drawing readers in, we smother them in information.

An opening scene’s job is to lure readers in, not shove the entire novel down their throat.

But it happens, especially in a first draft. We get excited and want to tell readers everything we love about the story, we forget that readers don’t know every detail about every character like we do, or maybe we try too hard to wow them. Sometimes, we’re just not sure how to open the novel and we muck it up.

One note before we dive in…there are exceptions to every one of these red flags, and probably a bestselling novel that uses each one. Anything can work in a novel if done well, and if that’s the right thing to do for that story, then do it. But please don’t use the exceptions as an excuse to ignore a problem in you novel.

Okay, moving on.

Here are five ways writers can overload readers in an opening scene:

1. You drown them in a vat of adjectives.

Too much description bogs down a novel, but it’s a killer in an opening scene. There’s no sense of a character for pages—just details about the weather, the landscape, the rooms, the way light filters through the trees.

It’s also a problem when you have the right descriptive details, but every single one has a queue of adjectives with it. It’s not a rainy morning, it’s a cold, dreary, wet day. The protagonist doesn’t leave their house in a good mood, they skip happily, humming a jaunty tune under their breath.

Try not to open your story like it’s an assignment to describe a work of art or a view from a window.

Instead, choose details relevant to the scene or the character in that scene. What matters at that moment? What is something that might matter later, but needs to be foreshadowed there?

(Here’s more on Let's Talk About Adjectives) 

2. You abandon them in a crowd.

Short-term memory can only hold around seven details at once, and if you waste that all on character names, readers won’t remember other critical details they need to understand the story.

Too many characters or names also make it hard for readers to know who’s important and worth remembering, and who’s just a throwaway character. With some of the names, it might be clear in the context that they’re not important, but others won’t be so obvious.

Try not to introduce a room full of people and expect readers to remember who they are.

Instead, focus on the main characters and the ones you want readers to connect to—and remember.

(Here’s more on Does Your Novel Have Too Many Characters?) 

3. You throw them unprepared to the wolves.

Common writing advice says “start with the action,” but that doesn’t mean open in the middle of a car chase. Action without context doesn’t give readers a character to connect to, or any idea about what’s happening in the scene.

Have you ever channel surfed? You stop on a movie in progress you haven’t seen, and even if the scene is exciting and you can tell it’s probably an awesome movie, you aren’t drawn in because none of it matters to you. It’s just action, and you haven’t emotionally invested in the characters or their problems yet.

Try not to confuse readers with no-context action.

Instead, provide enough context for readers to understand the scene and what’s important about it. Give them reasons to invest their time and emotions in this novel.

(Here’s more on Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers) 

4. You trap them in a lecture.

Readers pick up a novel for a story, not to hear the history lesson of the thousand years before the novel takes place (yeah, I’m looking at you fellow fantasy writers). They also don’t want to hear about the childhoods of all the characters before they have any idea who they are.

Imagine going to a party and a total stranger walks up to you and starts telling you all about their parents, their family, the traumas of their lives. How fast are you going to slip away? But if that same information came out during your “getting to know you” phase, you’d actually want to hear it.

Try not to share the novel’s whole life on the first date.

Instead, give readers the critical details to understand the scene, and just enough to tease them into wanting to know more.

(Here’s more on The Power of Explanation Compels You: Avoiding the Dreaded Infodump) 

5. You act like you haven’t seen them in ten years and hit all the highlights first.

We spend a lot of work to build a world and craft a story, and we want to get all that information in as soon as we can so readers can see how awesome it is. But stories unfold, they don’t gush through a fire hose.

Discovering all the novel’s secrets is a big reason why readers wanted to read that novel. If you give it all away in the first chapter, they have no reason to finish the book. It also steals the tension and mystery from the story. They might as well just read the wikipedia synopsis.

Try not to telegraph or reveal every critical element of the whole novel into a few pages.

Instead, spoon-feed readers tasty bites that make them crave more of the story.

(Here’s more on Message for M. Reader: Are You Telegraphing Your Plot?) 

You spent time on your novel, so give readers a chance to savor it.

The journey is what they came for, and the more entertaining that journey, the more they’ll love the novel. But if you smother them with attention and information at the start, they’ll never get beyond the first step.

Even if you are smothering your reader in your opening scene, once you identify how, it’s usually not that hard to fix.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and check your opening scene against these five red flags. Do any match your opening? If so, brainstorm how you might fix it.

Are you guilty of any of these? Do you have any (or have read any) that actually work?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to: 
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to: 
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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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  1. Amen. This goes straight into my recommendations list -- too many people need to know this.

  2. I know that I am going to make 1 or more of these mistakes when first drafting, particularly if I haven't done much plotting ahead of time. That's what those glorious rewrites are for. 8-)

    1. Totally :) One of the things I love about revisions.

  3. I actually don't have a problem with this while drafting (I tend not to give *enough* info), but I tend to get detail crazy in my first and second round of revisions. After finishing my first draft, I'm excited I finally know the ins and outs of my story, so in revisions I'm probably to eager to share everything with the reader. I need to get better at pulling back on the reins drawing folks in with hints and teases.

    1. It can be tough finding that line between enough and too much/too little. I think genre also plays a role. The more world building, the harder this is.