A funny thing happened to me during the editing process. I realized my biggest problem scene is in the first chapter. In the first scene of the first chapter. I’m actually pretty happy with the rest of it–the other eighty or ninety or one hundred scenes. I’m not sure how it happened that the first and most important scene became dud-ish. Well, I have a few suspicions. That first scene was, literally, the first that came to me in this incarnation of my story. It came to me organically–charming me with words and phrasing. It helped to establish the feel and flavor of the tale. It rooted all that came after.
It’s not working. I’ve come to see (cue light bulb) that it possesses too strong a narrator-type voice. It’s intrusive. It’s my voice coming through and not the protagonist’s.
It’s so important to get the first scene right. We read about it all of the time. Our friend Ray Rhamey shows us with his regular manuscript floggings (HERE) how often our first lines fail by lying flat on the page, when they need to reach out and grab, and shove the reader into the story.
The first scene is significant not only when it comes to snagging the attention of agents and editors; it’s important because it establishes a bond between reader and writer. Trust me, those first lines say. I’m a storyteller, and I have a tale for you. You’ll like it. Grab a chair and sit a while with me, these pages, and you’ll be glad you did.
Here are a few examples. What do the voices do for you? Do they incite trust?
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.
The old people’s home is at Marengo, about eighty kilometers from Algiers, I’ll take the two o’clock bus and get there in the afternoon. That way I can be there for the vigil and come back tomorrow night. I asked my boss for two days off and there was no way he was going to refuse me with an excuse like that. But he wasn’t too happy about it. I even said, “It’s not my fault.” He didn’t say anything. Then I thought I shouldn’t have said that. After all, I didn’t have anything to apologize for. He’s the one who should have offered his condolences. But he probably will day after tomorrow, when he sees I’m in mourning. For now, it’s almost as if Maman weren’t dead. After the funeral, though, the case will be closed, and everything will have a more official feel to it.
– The Stranger, Albert Camus
At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.
During the day I heard them tunneling through the walls of my bedroom, sounding like a radio tuned to static in the next room, and I imagined them in there turning the walls into honey-combs, with honey seeping out for me to taste.
– The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.
They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.
– Paradise, Toni Morrison
May I speak candidly, fleshling, one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader? Even if the literature of confession leaves you cold, even if you are among those who wish that Rousseau had never bared his soul and Augustine never mislaid his shame, you would do well to lend me a fraction of your life. I am Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, after all — in my native tongue, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the Principia for short — not some tenth-grade algebra text or guide to improving your golf swing. Attend my adventures and you may, Dame Fortune willing, begin to look upon the world anew.
– James Morrow, The Last Witchfinder
The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head. I liked it. I liked him. He was moody in a way that struck me as romantic; he was funny, bright, interesting to talk to; and he gave me pleasure.
The second time he picked my scarf up off the floor where I had dropped it while getting undressed, smiled, and said, “Would you let me blindfold you?” No one had blindfolded me in bed before and I liked it. I liked him even better than the first night and later couldn’t stop smiling while brushing my teeth: I had found an extraordinarily skillful lover.
– Nine and A Half Weeks: A Memoir of A Love Affair, Elizabeth McNeill
Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table. The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions.
Lyra stopped beside the Master’s chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the hall.
“You’re not taking this seriously,” whispered her dæmon. “Behave yourself.”
– The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
[Notice I did NOT mention Harry Potter. :)]
I’m not a Pullman or a Morrison or a Steinbeck. But I strive to be sure-footed all the same. The last thing I want is for a reader to hold his or her breath when flipping through my first few pages, hoping I’ll pull a good tale from my hat but not entirely convinced I have it in me. I do. I really do. But here’s a definite case of show-don’t-tell. So this week I stare hard at those first pages, chop them up and fix them.
Thoughts on a sure-footed voice? What do you look for in that first scene? Chime in.
Write on, all!