As I discussed in a recent post, openings are vital to a) getting people to buy your book and b) setting the tone. I’m struggling with the opening of my novel. I tend to be a heavy set-up writer. My first acts are way too long and then by the time the third act rolls around I’m happily skipping ahead. I tend to get caught up in every detail, every logical step in my first act to make sure that everything feels “real” and makes sense. And I think all of that is good work, I just don’t think all of it should go into the book itself. No reader is going to count the days and realize that I scheduled a football game on the wrong day, or count how many days my character is in her menstrual cycle. And if I’m bogged down in that much detail in the actual writing, I don’t think I’ll keep my reader’s interest anyways.
So here’s the opening of my book, which is currently titled FIREPOWDER but will be getting a new title when I can think of a better one. It was originally entitled SOULMATES because that’s exactly what it’s about, but I’d like to come up with something less Harlequin Romance.
Soulmates, they both thought.
It was a word she associated with silly girl fantasies, but now came to mean so much more. The existence of both a soul and a mate pointed toward something she never before believed in and she struggled to find explanations, definitions, and facts that would reconcile everything she knew to be true.
Still, no other word applied.
He sat with his head hung low, at peace with everything that was happening. He already knew that this was beyond the extraordinary. He didn’t need to know what it all meant or what it all implied. He just knew one simple fact: they had to be together. Anything else was madness.
Another revelation dawned: those who claimed to have found their soulmates, for the most part, were all wrong.
I think the prologue works, but then I go into my first chapter and I wanted it to feel “normal” and contradict the ominous tone of this opening, but it’s not working for me.
Diana scanned the dancefloor, trying to pick him out among the crowd of bodies pushing and pulling, turning and reaching. In the basement of a beautifully new house built on old land in a D.C. suburb named Bethesda, teenagers from Walt Whitman High had set up their very own club. He’s not gonna be dancing, she thought. She hoped. They had been officially dating since last spring but then she had to leave for two weeks on an enforced trip with her mother. Still. He wouldn’t be sweating up some girl, right?
It was hard not to notice her best friend Michelle who somehow was always in the spotlight. Up, down, back, and forth, moving to the whims of the DJ. There must have been at least four guys around her, trying to grab a piece, trying to show their cool, just waiting for her to choose. Oh, there she goes! Diana’s giggle was lost in the pulsing hip-hop as she saw her friend grab Bachelor Number One for a close encounter.
Over in the corner, she saw her other best friend, Jenn, making out with longtime boyfriend Jimmy. God, they had been dating for so long but were only just recently having the sex talk. From the looks of things, they seemed to be making progress.
Large, strong, hands covered Diana’s eyes, pitching her into complete darkness. Over the bass, Greg whispered into her ear.
Diana was instantly happy. Greg was her personal teddy bear. He was a senior to her junior; he was the varsity quarterback of their school’s football team. He was the sweetest, warmest, and safest guy. She lightly touched his hands and brought them around her body, pulling him close behind her. She realized that she genuinely missed him.
I like contradictions, but I think I lose my audience with this shift in tone. I keep thinking about AMERICAN BEAUTY and how it’s about this seemingly Utopia of American suburbia but all of it, from line one, is colored by the darker reality.
AMERICAN BEAUTY (excerpt)
by Alan Ball
INT. FITTS HOUSE – RICKY’S BEDROOM – NIGHT
On VIDEO: JANE BURNHAM lays in bed, wearing a tank top. She’s sixteen, with dark, intense eyes.
JANE: I need a father who’s a role model, not some horny geek-boy who’s gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school. (snorts) What a lame-o. Somebody really should put him out of his misery.
Her mind wanders for a beat.
RICKY (O.C.): Want me to kill him for you?
Jane looks at us and sits up.
JANE: (deadpan) Yeah, would you?
FADE TO BLACK.
EXT. ROBIN HOOD TRAIL – EARLY MORNING
We’re FLYING above suburban America, DESCENDING SLOWLY toward a tree-lined street.
LESTER (V.O.): My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This… is my life. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.
INT. BURNHAM HOUSE – MASTER BEDROOM – CONTINUOUS
We’re looking down at a king-sized BED from OVERHEAD:
LESTER BURNHAM lies sleeping amidst expensive bed linens, face down, wearing PAJAMAS. An irritating ALARM CLOCK RINGS. Lester gropes blindly to shut it off.
LESTER (V.O.): Of course, I don’t know that yet. He rolls over, looks up at us and sighs. He doesn’t seem too thrilled at the prospect of a new day.
LESTER (V.O.) (CONT’D): And in a way, I’m dead already.
He sits up and puts on his slippers.
I know movies are differently scripted than novels, but I was trained in screenwriting so I think in that way. Regardless, it makes sense. The idea for my first chapter was to start with my character’s “normal world” and show the very first moment of change, but I need to start a little later. Pick a different moment. Another rule of screenwriting is to come in late and leave early. I don’t need to be bothered with setting up each and every character from line one. I need to focus on what’s most important. So I need to find my MOMENT.