We all love to start our books with a sizzling first line, but did you know there’s more to the opening than that? Usually, there’s a whole scene! But what should be in that scene, and, just as importantly, what shouldn’t be in that scene? That’s what we’re talking about on today’s episode, and it’s not just complaining about prologues, we promise! We also discuss scene setting, building attachment, and the importance of novelty. Plus, why you shouldn’t put shoes on a car.
Generously transcribed by Textweaver. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Oren and Wes.[sarcasm] Ah, crap! It’s recording and we have listeners, and I’m supposed to say something insightful, but I don’t have my show notes. Oh no, what do I do?
Oren: You could introduce what’s novel about this podcast. I think that’s important for an opening. Maybe show us something cool, like a sound effect or something.
Wes: Can’t you, like, copy paste in a YouTube clip about podcasts that is full of flashing lights and sounds and stuff. And maybe it’ll relate to our topic?
Oren: Yeah, or just, like, a completely disconnected action scene. And then later, you can reveal that it was the main character in that action scene from 500 pages ago. Yay [sarcastic].
Wes: It’d be really tense and awesome, and then when we get into the meat of the podcast, it’d be also tense and awesome [laughs].
Chris: Maybe I should recount the very first episode of this podcast and go into the whole history, and talk about what Mythcreants is, and my personal backstory, and your personal backstory.
Wes: How else are people going to know what we’re talking about?
Oren: Or you could do a little epistolary opening about how death has no hold on you.[all laugh] [end of sarcasm]
Chris: Okay. This time, we’re talking about opening scenes, which are tough, real, real tough, because they have to get reader interest as quickly as possible because they’re not invested in the story when they just start. And also you want to sell it to them, in many cases, and you have to get their interest, even though they haven’t had time to be emotionally invested in anything, and they aren’t familiar with anything about your story, so you’re trying to teach them everything they need to know to understand the story, but at the same time, not make it feel like homework, and also make it super interesting.
Oren: Plus video games exist, so your competition is pretty stiff.[all laugh]
Chris: So, considering all of those requirements, it makes sense that opening scenes are pretty tough and are a challenging problem. But yeah, we talked about prologues a little bit–prologues and teasers–which is a very common way that writers try to make their opening riveting that we’re not particularly fond of.
Oren: No, don’t do it! It’s bad! You heard it from me: it’s a chaotic, evil alignment thing to do. It is objectively bad, according to the rules that govern the universe, I’ve decided.
Chris: So a prologue can technically be anything. First, we should just say that. Any kind of content could generally be in there at all. But when we say prologues, we’re usually talking about what they are used for in most cases, which–if they’re connected to the rest of the story–they’re not usually called a prologue. Sometimes they are, and they should just be called “Chapter One”.
It’s just like an interlude. You don’t normally take any chapter and label it with a word interlude. Things are labeled interlude when they’re really not supposed to be there, and the writer is looking for an excuse to just insert them in. Like, “What if I just had some world-building exposition? I can just call it interlude and slip it in there.”
Oren: It’s like, what if I set your carpet on fire? But as long as I said that’s what I was doing, it would be fine as long as I didn’t lie about it.
Chris: You’re very honest about your arson. In most cases, what they are is some kind of scene that has a lot of action in it, and often does not feature the protagonist. Otherwise, again, they would just be Chapter One. And the idea is that, okay, we’re going to put in this big, exciting sequence and get readers hooked on that, and then, we’ll just stop the exciting sequence and go focus on the protagonist instead, and that will buy us time to sort of build up the excitement with the protagonist.
The idea is that that’s supposed to be a hook that then carries you through the next chapter. And, to give it as much credit as I could give it, in a lot of these cases, I do think that if you just lopped off the prologue, the opening would be worse. But in all of those cases, that first chapter with the protagonist could have definitely been better. And so it feels like this is being done instead of optimizing the first chapter like it should have. And, the other thing to think about, is that when the story events aren’t connected, when we’re doing an action sequence over here, and then we just kind of leave that behind to go with the protagonist, that interest isn’t actually carrying over, even if it was exciting. And a lot of times it’s not actually exciting. We can get into why prologues are not necessarily exciting just because they have action in them, but now the person is bored. If it made a promise, it’s like, “Oh, You promised me one thing. Now I’m reading this boring opening chapter, and it’s nothing to do with that exciting hook you just gave me.” And people will get impatient. So it’s definitely making a lot of compromises and I don’t think it’s the best solution.
Wes: Yeah, I’m just thinking about common occurrences where I’ve seen that. Shows where there’s some mystery element, that seems like a common bit, or any kind of detective [show] –like Grim, Supernatural–the opening stuff deals with some people dying just so that you know that there’s another murderer out there who has got a supernatural thing going on and then cut to the main characters.
And is that just a meta way to entice us? It’s like, “Oh, it’s probably a werewolf this time,” or something like that. Otherwise, instead of opening up on somebody, mysteriously, getting pulled into a lake with no water disturbance, and we cut that out, and instead it’s just Sam and Dean arguing. I see why people do it. I agree, I just don’t think it’s very good. But, jumping into your protagonists I think is maybe a little bit intimidating because that opening scene has to make your readers want to keep reading. And it seems like more people are willing than not to make this kind of “devil’s bargain” to lie to us about what’s going to happen.
It’s like, “Here’s all your action. Oh, Nope. Psych! It is not that. You’re going to have to sit through them in a cafe for about 200 pages.”
Oren: That’s a very specific kind of opening that most stories don’t particularly benefit from, which is sometimes called a “body drop” or “the opening murder”, or what have you.
Wes: Yeah, I think I am Number Four also qualifies for this.
Chris: So, I am Number Four is kind of a classic example of exactly what I was talking about, where we have an action sequence, and often in these action sequences, somebody does die. And that person appears to be the protagonist before they die, which makes it even worse because people are more likely to get attached to a character that has problems. And so, when we have somebody like that, who’s facing this threat, and the villain is coming after this person in a book, they might think that’s the main character and get attached to this person who is in trouble, only to watch them die. And that could make them mad.
With a typical body drop, I feel like expectations are important. Like, we know that this is a mystery story, and we’re expecting it to open with a murder. Even then, that almost implies it’s a “cozy mystery”, which are not as popular anymore because the protagonist doesn’t have a personal stake in the murder.
I would say it’s more compelling if–for instance, your protagonist has their father get murdered– they discover their father’s murder at the beginning. They have personal investment in this person who just died. And, in a lot of cases, that’s going to mean more than just watching the father get murdered in the beginning because now you have a person to get attached to who just had something really bad happen, and it has a lot of problems and implications, and they’re personally invested in that,
But in some situations where you have a setup–a detective story–where the protagonist is just solving strangers’ murders, the body drop is not the worst thing.
Oren: Yeah, I was going to say that it’s a very specific scenario in which the protagonist is investigating an event that happens before the story starts, or, I should say, before we first meet them. And in that sort of situation, yeah, starting with that can be okay. Again, it’s a very specific situation. Most stories do not have that. Most stories, the story starts when the protagonist starts doing things. The murder investigation–the “who done it”–is kind of an exception to that rule.
In most cases, if your story is about a girl going to Assassin Nun School and becoming the best assassin nun, your story starts when that girl goes to Assassin Nun School (at the earliest). It might even start later depending on when the actual conflict begins.
Chris: Yeah. And I think that’s, again, if you’re having a protagonist that is there to investigate strangers who have died, it’s always better if they have a personal connection. It always makes the story more compelling. But, if they don’t have a personal connection, you can do the body drop, but at the same time, you still need to keep it short and tight and set good expectations. And that’s why, again, in a mystery story, we kind of expect the body drop. Or if you have, for instance, a slasher, people watch a slasher just to see people get murdered. So, it’s not as big a deal if they think, “Oh, that’s the main character. Oops! The main character got murdered.” That’s the kind of thrill they’re in for. Whereas your typical book reader is not there for that, especially since books can’t give that same visceral thrill that a movie can.
Oren: We’re also comparing books to movies and TV, and movies and TV just have an easier time moving around. And switching between “POV characters” and showing us things that the protagonist can’t see. They sometimes go too far on that too, but they just have an easier time with it. It is much less of a burden on the audience when a TV or film switches to a different location with different character than it would be if it was a book.
Wes: It’s just challenging when popular usage of writing being “cinematic” is considered high praise. That is telling us just the influence that visual media is having on prose works and maybe why we encounter opening scenes that have this kind of unrelated situation that isn’t driving the protagonist and introducing the through-line appropriately.
Oren: [dramatic] Lord save me from people who use cinematic as an adjective to describe a prose story. Like, ugh. The most pointless, empty adjective I have ever heard, probably. There might be a few more, if I look.
Wes: For today, it can be that one. [laughs]
Chris: But there is a real problem with a lot of writers copying what they see in visual stories. There are a lot of similarities–that’s not the worst thing you could do–but there are also problems with that.
Oren: I have a whole podcast about why prologues are bad. At some point, I should probably talk about the actual opening scene and what needs to be in there. How it works, at some point.
Chris: So, I also want to mention, in addition to prologues, we have “teasers”. The difference is that teasers are much shorter, so they’re not really doing a full scene. Sometimes they’re doing a tiny snippet of a scene, but they’re usually half a page, possibly even shorter than that. And, sometimes they’re an epistolary teaser and they’re not good, but I haven’t seen a lot of teasers that I thought were super effective at gearing up the story and actually had something that could be carried into the first chapter to enhance the experience of the first chapter, but they’re also not doing as much harm. So, I think in that case, I’m not going to rail against them because I don’t necessarily think they’re destroying the experience either, whereas a prologue is more likely to do that.
Oren: Yeah, they’re not as big a cost. They don’t do anything. I have as yet to see a teaser that added anything to the story. They’re always, like, some quote from in the book about how, like, the great mountain range was created when the evil God fell. And it was creepy. I was like, “I don’t know what any of that means. Moving on,” or like some quote from a real person. Like I’m supposed to know how the heck that applies to this story? It’s like, “Yeah, Shakespeare has a lot of good quotes. I guess you can put one on the front of your story if you want.” It doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s not the end of the world, but if someone put a shoe on the front of their car, I would probably say take that off. It looks silly. It’s not hurting anything, but I don’t know why you put it on there in the first place.[all laugh]
Chris: Oh, Oren, harsh!
Wes: Good and saucy Oren, I love it!
Oren: [sarcasm] Don’t put that shoe on there. I’ll make fun of you if you do it![all laugh]
Wes: [attempting to get things back on track] How important is the setting for your opening scene? I’m sure it could depend–like all things–but I think that, maybe, perhaps, the physical location for your opening scene could do quite a lot to promote engagement, get a little world-building in there, you know, maybe.
Chris: I would say that depends on how novel your setting is.
Wes: Ah, yes,
Chris: Because it’s always better to have novelty in your opening scene if you can get it. Novelty, gears up very fast and is capable of really engaging people immediately, which is exactly what you want in an opening. And, what’s more, things have more novelty when they’re first introduced, and you have to introduce a lot of things in your opening. So, really, novelty in an opening is a perfect fit. The problem is that novelty is hard, and that’s really hard to do unless you have an inherently really novel premise or a really novel world.
So, if you have a world where gravity works in reverse, and the ground is up top and everybody is in danger of falling into the sky, and you can make that simple kind of elevator pitch (like how quickly I just pitched that world and how obviously it’s different), that might be something that is worth using in your opening scene.
Or, if you have–again, the example I’m always using is the movie Warm Bodies, because that’s kind of a romantic comedy where the main character is a zombie, so it’s kind of subversive. But also, the movie opens with this character being like, “Yep, this is a day in my zombie life,” and that’s just really novel because zombies are almost never main characters. And as zombie fic has become more popular, that has also become a little bit more common, but still, that just has enough novelty that we can get to know the main character, build attachment to main character, and we’re entertained the entire time because of how novel it is.
And that makes a great opening. It’s just, a lot of us don’t, in the story we’re planning, have the potential for that much novelty that quickly. So, if there is something novel about your setting that you can bring out in your opening, that’s great–it’s a great bonus–but I wouldn’t usually encourage people to count on that. Especially since people like to think, “Oh, well, if I exposit about my world, that’s going to be super novel!” It’s like, “Well….”
Oren: You don’t want to overwhelm your reader. And that’s very easy to do, so be reserved. At the same time, it is important, I think, to try to communicate at least the general trope of your setting as early as possible, just because it is how you set expectations (one way you set expectations, I should say.) And it’s really disorienting to not know if you’re reading scifi or fantasy.
I had this problem when I tried to read The Blade Itself where the opening is so low on details that I could not tell you if this was a fantasy story about a fantasy soldier, or if this “Logan” guy, (because Logan could be either a fantasy name or a sci-fi name) was a crashed pilot. All I knew was that he was in a forest and there were some guys in the forest he didn’t like. And then I eventually put together that it was a fantasy story ‘cause he was fighting with an ax and he mentioned swords. I was like, “Okay, so this is probably fantasy,” but wow, it took way longer than it should have.
Wes: No axes in science-fiction, obviously. [laughs]
Oren: Less likely, right, less common. I still have no idea what the things he was fighting look like. After the whole chapter–actually multiple! There’s like two chapters go by where he’s fighting with these things called “shanka” and never describes what they look like. [laughs]
Chris: Okay. When we’re getting into information management. What information do we need to communicate upfront? The basic subgenre and the basic broad strokes of the setting are one of the things that really should be done quite quickly. I don’t know that they always need to be in the opening paragraph, but usually there’s some hints of the setting in the opening paragraph, and very soon. And knowing, you know, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi would be one of those really important things that we should know immediately. ‘Cause you don’t want the reader to form their own opinion and then find out they’re wrong because that’s really jarring. And the longer you wait, the more likely they are to do that.
I did an example kind of rework of the opening of I Am Number Four, and in that story, we have this weird situation where it’s got both fantasy and sci-fi elements (‘cause it’s just kind of thrown together like a superhero story or something) where this main character–kay, technically he’s an alien, but he has this magic charm on his leg. So, when I was doing the rework, I decided that I would introduce those things simultaneously, because if you introduce one first, it’s going to be weird and jarring when you introduce the other. Because, if you say magic, people are not expecting aliens. If you say aliens, people are not expecting magic. So, I was just putting a line, “Yep, I have a magic charm cast on me by my alien parents.” [laughs] There we go. We’ve got it done
Wes: Magic aliens. It’s great. [laughs]
Chris: The story has magic aliens. Okay, let’s go. So yeah, those basic things at the word craft level, your first paragraph really should tell people what viewpoint and like narrative premise and narrative style you’re using. If it’s omniscient, you really should make it clear that it’s omniscient by saying something that the main character obviously doesn’t know. If your opening paragraph is just a single sentence, okay, but if you have a full paragraph, you definitely should say that so that people aren’t confused later, when suddenly you say something that the main character doesn’t know, for instance. That would be an example of another kind of crucial item for setting expectations that people should know. And then, we get into the opening problem, and what they need to understand to appreciate the general context.
Oren: Should we talk about tension in opening scenes? ‘Cause opening scenes need those. They need tension.
Oren: They can’t just not have tension. That’s what all of these disconnected prologues are trying to compensate for, is that the opening scene doesn’t have tension because you’re just expositing about stuff.
Chris: Yeah, that’s usually what you have to rely on because if your story doesn’t inherently have a premise that can create that instant novelty and attachment to the main character takes time… then, what we’re left with is trying to put together tension. But, on the plus side, if you have a protagonist with a problem in your opening (which is the best opening, is a protagonist with a problem) then, oftentimes, creating that problem and adding that tension will also make your protagonist more sympathetic because they’re facing a problem, which also helps attachment because all of these things are very synergistic. All the answers, synergistic–you got to have them all
Oren: Gotta catch ‘em all.
Chris: Catch ’em all.
Wes: Gotta catch ‘em all.
Chris: All the ants, in an anthill. [laughs]
Oren: And you want to pick some kind of problem that is easy to communicate why it matters. That’s the best thing to start with. Like, “My best friend is dangling over a cliff, and I’m trying to rescue them,” or “I’m going to lose my house if I don’t do this presentation well enough to get a raise.” Things like that make good opening problems as opposed to, like, a giant battle between huge armies because then it’s like, “Oh, okay. Hm.” It’s hard for me to tell who’s who and who I should be cheering for, or why I should care.
So if you do open with a huge battle, consider zooming into something more immediately relatable.
Chris: Again, you need a protagonist. Where’s your protagonist in that battle?
Oren: Where’s your protagonist and why should I care about them? What is it that they’re trying to accomplish?
Chris: And if you want sympathy for your protagonist, then you probably want a protagonist, who’s not somebody at the head of an army but like a conscript, that’s like, “I was not voluntarily here. I’m just trying to survive this situation.” That has the most tension and the most sympathy. Somebody who did not sign up for this. That’s kind of hot water that you want to put your protagonist in at the beginning of your story, if you can.
Oren: And if they are the leader of the army, then you want to show how they’re fighting for a righteous cause, and how they’re in really deep trouble, and how the enemy is really strong. Something like that, because, you know, not every story can be about a foot soldier. Sometimes it’s gotta be about a general. So, it’s just a matter of communicating why what’s happening matters and then that will create tension. And also it will start working on attachment.
Chris: Mhm. Although I would argue that if it’s going to be about the general, you should have the previous general get killed and then somebody suddenly promoted, so that they are not prepared to be a general.
Oren: That is one way to do that, yes.
Chris: Any case, we can get more into how you create sympathy. And, but one thing I should say, though, is you want an exciting problem, but you don’t want it so big that it’s more excitement that the story can sustain. So, if we have a conscript in the middle of the battle, just trying to preserve their life, and then the rest of the story is, like, quiet scenes, where they build relationships, that’s not going to be fitting. And, ‘cause you want to be able to keep building the tension throughout the story. So, you can have something that’s more exciting than the next scene, but then you want to be able to keep building up the tension, so try not to make it so big that you just can’t follow that act.
Oren: [sarcasm] No, everything’s exploding immediately in the first scene. There you go. Perfect.
Wes: Unsustainable scenes, always. [laughs]
So, introduce the main character, provide some novelty, get some tension in there. Oh yeah, and establish subgenre, ideally.
What about tone setting? Is this going to be a serious, like, comedic, satirical, kind of story? Should the opening scene carry that weight as well?
Oren: Well, the great thing about tone setting is that your story will do it whether you want it to or not. So, you should probably make sure it’s setting the one you want. [laughs]
Wes: Yeah, I’m just worried about, like, consistency of tone. Maybe you did the right thing and got rid of a prologue, but your opening scene has a drastically different tone from the next chapter.
Chris: I mean, there’s some things that you want to set, like the amount of realism. How gritty is this, for instance? How light is it? How dark is it? Usually, as long as you know what you’re doing, you know what tone you want, and you put that in consistently, that’s really easy to have that happen while other things are happening. So, luckily, it doesn’t usually take a lot of extra words, for instance, to set the tone.
Oren: Yeah, and the tone of the story does have some natural variance depending on how much tension is happening in the scene and what’s going on. But you want to pay attention to like, if, in this first scene, people are dying because this is a gritty, realistic battle where people die, that’s a tone you’ve set. And, later on, you’re not going to want to have a scene where the characters, like, charge into a hail of bullets and everyone is miraculously fine. That’s going to clash. Within reason, your tone can shift, but you want to be aware of what message you’re sending with what happens in your opening because that is people’s first contact.
Chris: And some people do have a little trouble with how do I start a problem right away. There are times when we have to get attached to something before the thing is threatened, before the big problem of the story will mean anything. So, for instance, if you want your city to be in danger, but we want people to care about the city before it’s, for instance, taken over by the villain, and then the protagonist is trying to free the city, for instance. If that’s kind of your conflict, you want to care about the city. A lot of times, you’re not gonna want to start the story with the villain immediately taking the city and the protagonist fleeing because then you won’t have any chance to actually get to know the city and care about it before it’s taken over, as an example.
So, sometimes it is a little hard, but there’s various things you can do. For instance, you can come up with early warning signs of later trouble. So, okay, the villain hasn’t taken over the city yet, but what’s some early trouble that’s a sign that the villain is going to? Maybe the protagonist runs into some minions that are, like, some villain’s scouts that are out in the woods, for example. That would be an early warning sign that this villain is coming to take over the city. So, that’s one thing you can do.
Sometimes, if it’s a little tough to start external problems, you can also just start with a more internal or personal issue of the protagonist. For instance, the protagonist is an outcast in the city and hasn’t proven themself yet, and start with those problems. Then, when the city is taken over and the protagonists frees the city, that will resolve that personal issue and you can kind of open with that. That would be another example. And, actually, that’s the kind of thing that movies do that all the time too. Sometimes they have prologues, but there’s a lot of movie openings that are just about the protagonist’s personal problem before you have the inciting incident, or what have you.
One thing to watch out for is over-hyped problems.[all laugh]
Chris: Just be genuine. There’s a lot of, again, published works–this is probably more common in published works and manuscripts–where people puff it up and make it look like a bigger deal than it is. Sooner or later, your reader’s going to find that it’s not a big deal if you over-advertise it. And there’s a lot of opening lines that are like this.
I just did a Lessons post where the opening line is, “Director, here’s the file that almost killed me.” And the idea of a file on a computer killing somebody, that’s not impossible in a sci-fi setting, and it’s quite interesting, but then we find out it’s like, no, what happened is the person writing this message risked their life compiling all the information to put in the file. That is not the same thing. Or, Crescent City, The first line is, “There was a Wolf at the gallery door,” was just an interesting opening line, but then you find out there’s not a Wolf or a gallery, really. The wolf is actually–I guess she’s a werewolf, but she’s in human form.
So, there’s the woman at the gallery door.
Oren: Yeah, there’s a lady out there.
Chris: Or in Dawn of Wonder, we start with all these people who are gathered around to watch something, and it turns out it’s just a kid who’s going to jump in the river. So, again, sooner or later, if you oversell it, your reader is gonna find out that you oversold it. So, I would be genuine when you’re presenting your opening.
Oren: [sarcasm] “I died the day we got our pet rabbits, in that death is a change, and I changed a little bit, to the extent that we all change at every moment in time.”
Oren: Perfect opening. Ten out of ten. Sold.
Chris: And also the perfect ending.
Oren: Yep. ‘Cause we are out of time. So we’re going to call this episode to a close before we go. I want to thank a few of our patients. First we have Kathy Ferguson who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week[closing theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?