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. [Read more…]