Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Opening Image

Okay, so I think most people know by now that I'm a huge fan of Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT series. I recently taught a class using this book, as well as SAVE THE CAT STRIKES BACK.

He subscribes to 15 beats in successful storytelling. The first beat is the most important, in my opinion. It is also--for me--the hardest.


The Opening Image. 

This is the snapshot of the character in their world before. Feel like that sentence needs more? It doesn't. This is the BEFORE snapshot. 

I think we hear a lot of advice about the opening chapter/page of our books. "Start in the middle of the action." Or "You have to hook readers really fast." Or whatever. I think sometimes this advice is dangerous. 


I think it's okay to start a little slower. I think you need to have interesting writing and captivating characters to keep readers interested. I think having a fast-paced novel is a good idea. But I don't think the fast pace should come at the expense of the opening image.

I don't think action should come at the expense of the opening image. I don't think backstory should come at the expense of the opening image.

It's important to start the story exactly where the story needs to start--and build from there. Which is why the opening image is so crucial, and also so, so hard. 


How's your opening image? Too fast? Too slow? Is it "before" enough?

40 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

Yes, I find the opening image hard to pin down at times. I find reading lots of other openings helps.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm working on mine as we speak. I've rewritten a few times now - and will probably do it a few times more... :)

Natalie Aguirre said...

Like Jemi, I'm working on mine now. I'm reworking it because it wasn't quite right. Didn't realize there was another book in this series. I'll have to check it out.

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Oh my goodness, I've always found the opening to be the most difficult for this very reason. It has to grab the reader and be just PERFECT. Great post!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

It took me forever to get my opening image right for one of my wip. And it's going to take just as long for my other one (which is still in first draft form). :(

Matthew MacNish said...

I have no idea about my own stories, but I loved the opening image of Vi in Possession.

Jessica L. Foster said...

Good tips. I have a hard time not trying following the "hook the readers really fast" rule. Sometimes you just have to go with your book. Sometimes I struggle with books that start with action and I have no idea why I should care about the character, but then if it's well done, I don't notice it. I'll have to think about my opening scenes to make sure they work. Thanks for sharing.

mmshaunakelley said...

I find the first five pages to be te hardest, and those that I write over and over. It sets the tone, and hooks the reader. Great post!

mmshaunakelley said...

I find the first five pages to be te hardest, and those that I write over and over. It sets the tone, and hooks the reader. Great post!

Liesel K Hill said...

I've had stories where I've pretty much nailed it the first time (with a few editing tweaks, of course) and then others where I've re-written literally dozens of times and still don't feel it's quite right. I agree with what you said about certain advice being dangerous. The CEO of Jolly Fish Press told me that he'd read many manuscripts where the first three chapters were awesome, but the rest sucked. It's because everyone puts so much into that first part, knowing that's what the agents/publishers will read. As you say so well, we should never do the first part at the expense of everything else! Great post! :D

Daisy Carter said...

I just read SAVE THE CAT, and serendipitously, at just the right time. I've been working on a revision and couldn't quite figure out what the problem was. Then I realized I was missing the debate AND midpoint!

I have a hard time with openings, too. But STC helps. A LOT!

SA Larsenッ said...

For me, the opening image is the hardest part. I can never decide what side of my MC I want the reader to meet first. I'm currently working on an MG project and I think I've nailed down where to open up. It might be getting easier.... ;D

AE Rought said...

I like that it recommends BEFORE. It's almost...revolutionary in sight of what we are told as authors.
My stories always tell me where they start. Funny, because I'm becoming a merciless plotter. But, I haven't had to change one, yet...

Nicole Zoltack said...

Beginnings are the worst for me. I constantly have to rewrite them.

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

My first chapter is rewritten the very most. Usually about 10-20 times - because so many threads have to be brought together in an intriguing way. And I absolutely agree about the idea of NOT opening in the middle of an action scene. The action will make no sense and the reader can feel no empathy or sense of doom or excitement - unless they know the characters first and "what is at stake" for the character. All a writer has to do in the opening pages is to pose some sort of question, like dangling a carrot. It does not have to be earth shattering, but only needs to make the reader say, "Hmm, I wonder what that means. I wonder what's going to happen."

Just a quick example; the opening line in my 2013 Scholastic book is: "The first butterfly came the day after the funeral."

With one sentence the reader has three immediate questions:

1. How can a butterfly "come" to you?

2. If it's the first butterfly, that must mean there will be a second - or more!

3. Who just died? Whose funeral just took place and how does it impact the MC?

Sorry to start teaching a class here in your comments, Elana!

Carolyn V said...

I agree. I always like to dive into it. I need to slow my beginnings down a bit. ;)

Sarah Allen said...

Its actually really nice to hear this, I've been wondering if my opening is too slow. Great post!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Lynn Proctor said...

certainly a hard one to do--saying hi from the az challenge!

Jenn Soehnlin said...

My opening scene is always the one I rewrite the most. I think it's hard to capture your story world and your characters the best way possible until after your story is completely done, which could be why I kept revising the intro as I went along.

The Cat Strikes Back?!? I must check out this book!

Theresa Milstein said...

I like to read enough to hook me, but I need to breathe and absorb what's going on at that point.

I rewrite my first page more than any other too.

Ruth Josse said...

Ah, openings! So hard for them to feel organic and right. The thing that has worked the best for me is to write what I think is the best opening and then finish the book. More often than not, I go back and know exactly what the beginning should be. d

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Those are my favorite writing books as well! I didn't even know about the fifteen beats until after I'd written the first draft of my second book, but when I went through the checklist, I was stunned to see I'd done most of it right. (When it comes to writing, that doesn't happen often for me.)
I don't mind a slow start. Neither of my books hit the ground running.

LD Masterson said...

I seem to have two. My mystery opens with the murder so the first image is of the killer and the victim. The next scene is the opening image of my protag. Does that count?

Jenny Morris said...

I think establishing who the character is so that when the action happens we are right there with them is the most important thing. It doesn't have to be backstory, but who are they right now.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Loved your class, Elana. I'm working my way through the book.

I agree about the opening. It doesn't have to be action, it just needs to be something interesting that captures the interest of the reader.

Robin said...

Ordered the book. Beginning are the hardest to nail down. I like this idea of the before snapshot.

Thanks!

Sarah Ahiers said...

I really need to read this book, since i've been told now that my outline is less of an outline and more of a beat sheet. Who knew?
I actually had to rewrite the beginning of my current MS 3x, which is a bit unusual for me. But i think it's just right, now. And i actually prefer novels that start out a bit slower. Right in the action is a bit too jarring for my tastes

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I don't think I figured out a good balance until my fifth fiction book. Most had a gentle and slow beginning until that point.

mshatch said...

I completely agree. There's nothing worse than getting thrown into a train wreck waiting to happen without knowing who's on the train. because if I don't know, I'm not going to care much about the wreck.

Leslie Pugh said...

I have Save the Cat and thought it was a great book. I definitely want to read the follow-ups to it. I heard your class based on the book was fantastic at Storymakers! Wish I could have been there.

As for my opening image, I think it's far too slow so I've been rewriting it this week and hopefully improving it.

Jessica Therrien said...

This was such an important piece of advice for me. I first heard it at the SCWC, and it just opened my eyes. The lady called it the "Eden State"...basically right before the world explodes, lol.

S.P. Bowers said...

I tend to be a slow starter. In fact I've been spending a lot of time worrying about my WIPs beginning. Maybe I need to get this book.

Martha Ramirez said...

I Totally agree! And I am a HUGE STC fan as well!! Thank you for the reminder. Those opening pages will make you or break you. I would had loved to take one of your classes. Love Blake!

RaShelle Workman said...

It needs work.

Becca Puglisi said...

Thank you for saying this. In YA, particularly, people seem to think that you have to start with a big event, and quite frankly it drives me nuts. Because, for the reasons you stated, it's not always the best way to start.

Christina Lee said...

YEsss! the hardest part for lots of us, but I'm getting better, the more novels I write!

JeffO said...

I think so much of this depends on the type of book you're writing. As someone who tends more to the literary side of things, I'm a bit slower on the opening as far as what's going on, but I try to be stronger about establishing the identity of the main character.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I find it depends on the character I'm writing. Some are more forthcoming, and others I've rewritten many, many times.

Barbara Watson said...

I'm finishing a draft of a novel right now and am already making revision notes. This is now on my list.

Tonja said...

I think the opening is the fun part. I like starting in the middle of an argument or with a character saying something that definitely needs an explanation.

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