"A movie should start as late as possible and occur over the shortest reasonable span of time. A film that uses too much time setting up the ordinary world of characters or that spreads over three weeks a story that can be told in three days will feel slack." (101 Things I Learned in Film School by Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick)
Same applies to novels. Three pages of backstory, an over-described setting, protracted getting to the action will lull a reader to sleep -- and an agent or editor to toss in the can.
But jeesh, where does the action start? We need to trust our readers' intellect and curiousity enough to not bore them with everything that happened 'before' so they'll understand what's happening 'now.' Sink the reader into the drama as it unfolds in a manner that is compelling and unique. Along with Starting Strong, the first scene should, at a minimum:
>> Introduce the 'inciting incident', an event which denotes a point of no return for the main character and which poses the significant problem for her
>> Introduce your main character as flawed and malleable (remember, your character must undergo change over the course of the story)
>> Launch the plot of your story
>> Have a strong and memorable opening that alludes to theme (e.g., loss, betrayal, redemption)
Finding out where the action starts is tough. But once you find it -- even if buried thirty pages into the manuscript -- that's where your story begins. Kill everything before that, saving it for insertion later in your story, and voila! A new beginning.
Something to keep in mind: EVERY scene in your manuscript needs to have a true entrance. Don't waste time getting in and out of scenes; this isn't a party where you have to thank your hostess or tell her you've arrived.
Just arrive. Then leave.
For PURE, I hacked an entire first scene of really good stuff (my darlings, my darlins!) before finding my opening sweet spot: Even before I pushed open the door, before the acrid sweetness of cedar and urine assaulted me, I knew. No usual scurry of mice swarming to greet me, their provider of food, water, and amphetamine.
Where do you start? What's your memorable first line or two?
In other news... my son Will graduates from 5th grade on Wednesday - where did the years go?... tonight we MUST win the Little league game or we are out of the playoffs... summer begins this Friday!!!!... July dedicated to another run through BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT so I can start sending out queries this fall... heading to Boston for AcademyHealth, friends and family at end of June... the daylilies are starting to strut their stuff, and berries galore in the garden (currants, blueberries, strawberries)... check out the latest issue of 52250 - theme is lovelies on the beach life is good...