Sunday, June 13, 2010


"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...

Peace, Linda


  1. Some great tips here, Linda. Beginnings are so hard for me, I agonise over the first line and I'm never completely happy with it.


  2. Some really great points here, Linda. I've just started a new bit of writing that may well become a serial. This has given me something to think about as I write.

    Congrats to the grade five grad. :)

  3. I can't wait to read pure, Linda. Finding the beginning is a challenge - you need to introduce your character's 'ordinary world' so they know how much is at stake when events unfold, but without unnecessary rambling.
    I have no doubt you'll be able to do this - that sentence is fantastic.

  4. great points.

    just start and then find the beginning.

    i used to just stare at the blank page and wonder why it was i write on it "this is not a blank page" and suddenly ther is a scene

  5. great advice, linda... i love screenwriting texts. chock full of great tips.

    Congrats to the little guy!

  6. I adore the Douglas Adams slow, meandering, chatty intro. It took a long time to beat it back, such that it only takes up a few of my stories now.

    Though to be fair, I started my first novel with a man running from cannibals, hanging onto the hem of stolen pants that were too big for him.

    Your whole post rings of simple truth. I wouldn't quash all slow writing - it can be done well, it's just that we must make it rarer so we can appreciate the well done examples.

  7. Excellent advice, Linda. Keeping the reader engaged is one of our top priorities. I usually start any scene as close to the action or as close to the character as possible.

  8. Thanks for your comments, all! Beginnings ARE hard, and sometimes we have to get to the end before we find our start. At least that's the case for me.

    John, I LOVE slow, lazy beginnings, as long as they engage with the words. How one starts a big sorta reflects the yin and yang of commercial versus literary. I do know this -- your beginning must be organic to the story and true to the character. Gratuitous sex, violence, action of any sort which is NOT germane to the story and theme is a waste.