Your first scene has a critical job. It has to snare your reader’s attention and keep it riveted throughout, with a longing to finish the book. No pressure, eh?
We’ve already discussed what a first chapter should do. This time, let’s talk about some common mistakes in first chapters and scenes, and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Cliches & Atmosphere
It was a dark, stormy night…
That first line is synonymous with cliche. As a rule, avoid cliches, but that applies doubly to your first lines. Avoid general dramatic statements that are meant to have an impact but fall flat instead.
Likewise, avoid starting your first scene with a description whose only purpose is to set the atmosphere. No one cares about atmosphere. We care about the people who are caught in that atmosphere.
Focus on your POV character and on how they experience the scene, what it says about them, and so on. At the end of the day, we read about people and interactions, not weather patterns or even lovely sunrises.
Mistake #2: False Beginnings
Unless you have a very compelling reason, like Gabriel García Márquez in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, avoid starting with a dream, hallucination, or any other false beginning that turns out not to happen in the end. Otherwise, your reader would feel cheated and might abandon your work with disgust. No one likes to get immersed in a story only to be told a moment later, “Joking! That never happened.”
Mistake #3: Info-dumping
Ever been on a date where one says, “Hi,” and the other answers with his full life-story? Yep, that’s a recipe for disaster.
The same goes for your reader and you. You’ve just met. Don’t burden her with your characters’ back story and the geographical layout of the world. Take your time. Give the reader just enough to understand what’s going on, while hinting at deeper things that will be unveiled later.
Mistake #4: Dialog
This one is a pet peeve of mine: avoid starting with dialog.
I know a lot of books employ this tactic as beginning in medias res, but for me, it doesn’t work. Here’s why.
When the reader encounters a line of dialog first, she has no idea who’s speaking to whom, where they are, why should the words matter, and so on. It’s a mini-incident of floating heads, because we still have no image of the people involved. That tends to hollow out the words rather than making them pack an impact.
Give the reader a chance to sense the character first, even if it’s a short action beat prior to the dialog.
Mistake #5: an Idle POV Character
Your POV character (and every other character in the scene, while we’re at it), should be wanting something right off the bat. According to Kurt Vonnegut, it could be something as simple as a glass of water. (It would be nice if it reflected the Overreaching Goal of the story, or at least told something significant about the POV character.)
A motivated character gives the reader a sense of direction, and that sense drags the reader onward through the story. An idle character, on the other hand, makes her feel like nothing interesting is happening, which is a sure way to get her to abandon the story.
Putting It All Together
For your first and critical scene, pick a piece of action that will introduce your POV character within settings that can be easily understood. Tantalize the reader with the promise of more backstory details, but don’t deluge her with information. Forsake cliches and empty descriptions, and concentrate on the human story instead.
Do these, and your first scene has a better chance of doing its job right and pulling your readers into a story they’ll enjoy.
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