Thursday, October 4, 2012

Scene Openers?

An undersea thriller just waiting for readers to find it's adventure.

Scene Openers?

Question:  What is the best way to open a scene? How do I lead readers into the story? My writer's group complains that all I write are "weather reports."

Answer: Writers call the opening of the scene, the "transition." Most of us have problems learning to write transitions simply because first we imagine the scene in our heads, then we have to begin to describe it SOMEwhere. The first thing you notice when you look out the window is the weather. The first thing you notice when you walk into a room, is who else is there.

A transition is when you move the reader from one place to another, or one scene to another, or one time to another. For those of us who are old enough to remember black and white westerns (or who are fans of movie classics) one memorable transition is when they flash on the screen, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch....”
When we see that, we know we have cut from the chase to what is happening back home.

A good transition, like the lead in a newspaper or magazine article, should answer the questions, Who? Where? and When? Otherwise it leaves the reader vaguely aware that something is missing and causes editors to write in their refusal letters, "This story needs to be better grounded in time and space." 

I know. I have the return letters to prove it, because I used to be the world's worst at writing transitions. The worst kind of transition is a "weather report" as in: "It was a dark and stormy night," because it doesn’t say where, or when, or who. Nor does it indicate an imminent problem that must be solved in the story. Every story is about someone with a problem to solve.

There is NOTHING in that transition to indicate that we're in Italy, it's 79AD, and Vesuvius is blowing it's top. What would pique your interest? A dusty classic with a title about an ancient city? Or a volcano about to erupt? If we want to lead the reader into our story, we need to attract their attention. No matter what story we are writing, something has to be at stake.

A lot of that is plain common sense. I can't tell you how many manuscripts I see where scenes open with a conversation between two people, but we don't know where they are. Worse, many times a third person will say something, then following the speech, will be the words, "Danny Martin joined them on the post office steps." It's plain disorienting for Danny to speak, before he joins them. Sort of like someone sneaking up behind you and poking you in the back when you're not looking. And it's even worse if the first two people have been talking for half a page before we find out they're at the post office. Especially if we've already built them a street corner, or a grocery store parking lot, or a comfortable living room in  where they can talk by using our own imaginations.

To keep readers grounded, they need to know where they are, and who is there with them, preferably with a problem statement to make them wonder what will come next.

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