I’ve been tweaking the opening scene of my WIP. Openings are tricky. One wants to start with something that will grab the reader’s attention. But what i tend to forget is that even with an action opening,one has to take the time to set the scene and characters, to give the reader of sense of who the story is about and what is at stake. This doesn’t necessarily mean a whole chapter devoted to establishing the characters and setting. it can be integrated into the action. I originally started Vienna Waltz with Suzanne walking into the room to find Malcolm kneeling over Tatiana’s body. then i realized I needed a few paragraphs first to set up who Suzanne was, how Tatiana had summoned her, and the sort of marriage Suzanne and Malcolm had. Still later I decided I needed the Prologue to set up Tatiana and some of the other key characters.
In Imperial Scandal, Malcolm has a few moments of interaction with La Fleur and Harry before the shots ring out. And the ambush at the château is intercut with Suzanne at the embassy ball in Brussels so that (hopefully!) the suspense of the action sequence balances the talkier scene at the ball.
With my WIP, set in London in 1817, I once again forgot about the need to establish the characters and the stakes, even in an ongoing series. I originally began with a wounded Simon climbing in through the library window of Malcolm and Suzanne/Charles and Mel’s Berkeley Square house. here’s the original opening paragraph, which is still in the book:
A thud on the window glass cut through the whisky-scented shadows and candle-warmed air. Charles dropped his book. Mélanie nearly dropped baby Jessica. Charles sprang to his feet, disrupting Berowne the cat, and moved to put himself between Mélanie and Jessica and the window. Mélanie tightened her arms round Jessica. Old defensive instincts sprang to life, like hairs responding to a shock of electricity. The Berkeley Square house, still so new, had perhaps never felt so much like home than now, when it was threatened.
Berowne hissed and arched his back. The window scraped against the sash. Charles snatched up a silver candlestick. Jessica released Mélanie’s breast and let out a squawk.
“It’s all right.” A slurred, strained voice came from the window. “It’s me.”
I then decided i needed to show what happened to Simon, so I added a scene which begins:
The lamplight shone against the cobblestones, washing over the grime, adding a glow of warmth. Creating an illusion of beauty on a street that in the merciless light of day would show the scars of countless carriages, horses, and pedestrians. Much as stage lights could transform bare boards and canvas flats into a garden in Illyria or a castle in Denmark.
Simon Tanner turned up the collar of his greatcoat as a gust of wind, unusually sharp for October, cut down the street, followed by a hail of raindrops. His hand went to his chest. Beneath his greatcoat, beneath the coat he wore under it, he could feel the solidity of the package he carried, carefully wrapped in oilskin. Were it not for that tangible reminder, it would be difficult to believe it was real.
Still more recently, I realized that the reader still didn’t know enough about Charles and Mélanie and what was at stake for them, and that with the action of the opening with Simon, I could afford a conversation that set up Charles and Mel (catching readers of the series up with where they are at this point, introducing them to new readers) before Simon climbs through the window. So I added a scene that begins:
Charles Fraser glanced up from his book and tilted his head back against the bronze velvet of the Queen Anne chair. “There’s was time when I thought we’d never have a quiet night at home.”
Mélanie Fraser regarded her husband over the downy head of their ten-month-old daughter Jessica, who was flopped in her arms, industriously nursing. “There was a time when I never thought we’d have a quiet night.”
His gray eyes glinted in the candlelight. “Sweetheart. are you complaining of boredom?”
I’m sure I’ll tweak the opening scenes many more times, but I think I now have a shape for the opening that balances action and character revelation.
Writers, how do you approach openings/ Readers, what are the openings of novels that you find particularly effe3ctive? is it action or character that catches your attention?
I’ve also just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Mel/Suzette to Isobel about Rachel and Henri’s wedding. I love using the letters to touch on things I don’t show in the actual books.