Effective opening scenes orient your reader to a story’s core conflict while raising pertinent questions about the plot to come. Most often, we writers achieve this through devising a scene in the story’s current world, pushing our protagonist toward the story event that will forever change his life because our readers want this story to get underway.
Complex story worlds may require more setup, and yet you wouldn’t want to put the story on hold while you explain pertinent matters about race, politics, cultural differences, and economic challenge.
In his #1 New York Times best-selling memoir, Born a Crime, comedian and TV host Trevor Noah (The Daily Show, Comedy Central) jump-starts his South African world-building with an anecdotal opening from earlier in his life that interweaves these complexities.
Don’t cry foul yet.
I know this is a fiction writing blog, but you need only read the amazing opening to Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, in which our first-person narrator conveys the story of his own birth, to see how well a dramatic vignette from the past can work in fiction. Such a setup can help us understand why the protagonist acts the way he does and why it will matter when the inciting incident forever changes his life.
Good reasons exist not to use backstory in your opening, one of the best being that it might raise the wrong question in the reader’s mind. But if you devise the right scene, its emotional resonance will create an underpinning for the entire story to come.
Let’s break down Noah’s first chapter, “Run,” to see why it works so well.
Set the hook
Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.
I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car….
These are Noah’s opening sentences. Does he have your attention?
Build core conflict
It was a Sunday, Noah recalls, because they were on the way to three church services because his mother was deeply religious. (Great conflict building—why would a religious mother shove her son from the car?). He explains that like indigenous people around the world, the Xhosa had adopted the religion forced upon them by their colonizers. Now his mother was “Team Jesus” all the way. Noah adopted a different perspective.
If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.
Noah, his mother, and his baby brother went to white church, mixed church, and black church. Through Noah’s impressions of the differences, we start to understand what it means to Noah that he is half white and half Xhosa. He creeps up on the core conflict.
Christian karaoke, badass action stories, and violent faith healers—man, I loved church. The thing I didn’t love I was the lengths we had to go to in order to get to church. It was an epic slog.
Foreshadow future events
Sundays alone required hours and hours of driving, which was problematic due to the unreliability of his mother’s ancient Volkswagen Beetle.
The reason she got it for next to nothing was because it was it was always breaking down. To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything that’s ever gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car. Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late to school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mom got married. If it hadn’t been for the Volkswagen that didn’t work, we never would have looked for the mechanic who became the husband who became the stepfather who became the man who tortured me for years and put a bullet in the back of my mother’s head—I’ll take the new car with the warranty every time.
That raises a few questions to which we want the answers, right? On the Sunday in question, Noah’s mother rejects his assessment that if the car broke down, it was God’s sign they should stay home.
Noah contextualizes his relationship to his mother:
We had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom. She was the strict disciplinarian; I was naughty as shit.
When Noah got in trouble his mother would chase him, seeking aid by calling, “Thief!” He’d say, “I’m not a thief! I’m her son!” They ran a lot.
Avoid “info dump” through relevance
Nelson Mandela had recently been released from prison, and Noah describes the rioting that accompanied the downfall of apartheid in a powerful way—that ties in to cars:
Once a month at least we’d drive home and the neighborhood would be on fire. Hundreds of rioters in the street. My mom would edge the car around blockades made of flaming tires. Nothing burns like a tire—it rages with a fury you can’t imagine.
Circle back to anecdote
This particular Sunday, the Sunday I was hurled from a moving car, started out like any other Sunday…
But by 9 p.m. the car was broken down, riots made it dangerous to be out that late, and public transportation would extend their nine-hour church day beyond the limits of exhaustion. So they catch a mini-bus, part of a black-run transportation system that operates outside the law. The two club-wielding Zulus up front hurl insults and threats at Noah’s mother when they pick up her Xhosa language. The driver’s constant acceleration has his mother fearing for their lives, even as beside her, nine-year-old Noah can no longer fight the exhaustion claiming him.
See how this anecdote is holding the entirety of this conflicted story world within its frame? And then, its climax: as the driver eases up on the gas at a light, Noah’s mother pushes him out of the car, curls herself around the baby she is holding, and jumps out after him.
I smacked hard on the pavement…I went from half asleep to What the hell?
His mom looked at him and told him to do the thing they’d been practicing throughout their relationship—“Run!”
The guys in the mini-bus couldn’t keep up.
Yes, this is memoir, but don’t we want our novels to resonate this way? With a character caught in the vise-grip of circumstance, pushed far enough beyond his comfort zone that he undertakes a meaningful journey?
The chapter ends with Noah telling his mom that maybe Jesus could just meet them at their house the next Sunday, because that day had not been fun. This has them erupt into hysterical laughter, a longer-range foreshadowing of how Noah’s career will benefit from using humor to explore our humanity.
Have you encountered novels with great anecdotal openings? If you’ve read Born a Crime or Peace Like a River, how did their openings work for you? Have you tried using this technique?
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