Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Starting a scene by breaking the rules

The “rules” say conflicting things:
  • A good start for a scene is in media res, i.e., in the middle of things.
  • You shouldn’t start a scene with dialog.
There’s an obvious conflict here, since the middles of lots of scenes are dialog-heavy.

My approach has been to (sometimes) start a scene with a single line of dialog that presents a challenge from the speaker to the listener.

Unthinkable started with “So you see, Mr Penfield, we can’t really be communicating, because true communication is impossible.”  There follow
  • a couple of sentences about the speaker;
  • a couple of sentences of setting;
  • resumption of the action.
I still think it’s effective.

In Seen Sean?, the opening line was, “I hope the schedule change didn’t rattle you too badly, Corwin.”  So we establish that
  • there was a change in the schedule;
  • the speaker had the authority to change the schedule
  • he’s speaking to someone who had a different expectation.
After the opening line, there’s an immediate establishment of characters (the victim and his assistant) and setting (the victim’s condo).

Again, I stuck with it because it worked.

It’s interesting (as an artifact) that the original opening of Seen Sean? (click on the menu above or on the book cover to  the right) didn’t start with dialog, but just with a hint of trouble: “One Tuesday in early September, about halfway between the start of school and the first hint of autumn air, a tall, broad-shouldered man with steel gray hair, deep blue eyes, and no wedding ring strode into the office of Fleming Properties with an assistant in tow. Lisa McCloskey recognized Charles Jamison, U.S. Senator, at once.”

What do you think? How much should an author break the rules in an opening?

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