The Exception That Proves the Rule About Opening With a Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Writers and other artists are a touchy lot. We love our independence. We should all go around humming that song from Woody Allen’s Bananas, the one the guerilla leader sings:

Rebels are we!
Born to be free!
Just like the fish in the sea!

In short, we don’t like to hear the word rules. Don’t fence me in! Give me land, lots of land! Rules? We don’t need no stinking rules!

And yet, and yet … there are some things that are fundamental to storytelling and the fiction craft, so called because, guess what, THEY WORK! They help a writer weave a story that readers can actually relate to and get lost in. Imagine that!

Yeah, but So-and-so breaks the rules and writes bestsellers!

Sure, and how many So-and-sos are there? And maybe, just maybe, So-and-so compensates for the “rule breaking” by doing something absolutely astonishing somewhere else. Maybe So-and-so knows exactly what he’s doing when he breaks a rule.

In fact, I’d say good old So-and-so is actually the exception that proves the rule!

Let me show you what I mean.

I have a rule—or, if your hackles are starting to gather for a protest––a guideline or axiom: Act first, explain later. By this I mean it is much more engaging and compelling to begin your book with an actual scene in progress, with a character in motion, than it is to lard backstory and description and exposition all over the first couple of pages.

Is there an exception to this rule? Yes, one that proves it. The exception is this: a style that can enrapture you with the power of the writing alone. Almost always this is found in so-called literary fiction.

Example: here is the opening of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. (Note: The ellipses are Kesey’s):

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River …

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting … forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce––and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir––the actual river falls five hundred feet … and look: opens out upon the fields.

Metallic and first, seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to the lips. Closer still, it flattens into a river, flat as a street, cement-gray with a texture of rain. Flat as a rain-textured street even during flood season because of a channel so deep and a bed so smooth: no shallows to set up buckwater rapids, no rocks to rile the surface … nothing to indicate movement except the swirling clots of yellow foam skimming seaward with the wind, and the thrusting groves of flooded bam, bend taut and trembling by the pull of silent, dark momentum.

A river smooth and seeming calm, hiding the cruel file-edge of its current beneath a smooth and calm-seeming surface.

Kesey reaches out with his wrestler’s arms and lifts you off the mat. It works for me. It may not for others, but that’s the point. Kesey knows exactly what he’s doing here, eschewing act first, explain later. The exception that proves the rule is a dazzling literary style.

What happens when a writer doesn’t dazzle, but ignores the rule anyway? You end up with something like this:

The trip by jeep from the small village near Luena to Malanje in Angola, in southwest Africa, followed by a train ride to Luanda, the capital, had taken seven hours. The drive from Luena was long and arduous due to unexploded land mines in the area, which required extreme diligence and caution to avoid as they drove. After forty years of conflict and civil war, the country was still ravaged and in desperate need of all the help outside sources could provide, which was why Ginny Carter had been there, sent by SOS Human Rights. SOS/ HR was a private foundation based in New York that sent human rights workers around the globe. Her assignments were usually two or three months long in any given location, occasionally longer. She was sent in as part of a support team, to address whatever human rights issues were being violated or in question, typically to assist women and children, or even to address the most pressing physical needs in a trouble spot somewhere, like lack of food, water, medicine, or shelter. She frequently got involved in legal issues, visiting women in prisons, interfacing with attorneys, and trying to get the women fair trials. SOS took good care of their workers and was a responsible organization, but the work was dangerous at times. She had taken an in-depth training course before they sent her into the field initially, and had been taught about everything from digging ditches and purifying water, to extensive first aid, but nothing had prepared her for what she had seen since. She had learned a great deal about man’s cruelty to man and the plight of people in undeveloped countries and emerging nations since she’d started working for SOS/HR.

So help me, that is the first page and a half of a published novel. If it had not been written by an A-lister who could sell her parking tickets, no agent or editor would have let this through. (For the identity of the author and feedback about this passage, go here.)

I will note there are superb writers in familiar genres who sometimes begin with a literary style. Michael Connelly comes to mind (e.g., the opening of The Narrows). 

The point, gentle writer, is that no matter what you call them––rules, guidelines, fundamentals, axioms––they survive because they work every single time. That’s what I said. There is never a time when act first, explain later doesn’t work as an opening move.

But if you want to try something different, go for it. I’m all for spreading your writing wings. Just be aware of what you’re doing and why. Because if it doesn’t work out, guess what? You can always go back to the rules!

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21 thoughts on “The Exception That Proves the Rule About Opening With a Scene

  1. I prefer to think of them as guidelines. 😎 Because what works for one doesn’t work for another. Of the 2 examples cited, both were annoying, but the 2nd far less annoying than the first. We were talking in a recent post about what would make us turn away from a book–Example 1 was a perfect example. I don’t like being bludgeoned—physically or mentally.

    It is not that uncommon that I encounter openings like sample 2 which are not quite as lengthy and are sharper than this 2nd example. But I’ll take a telling explanation opening any day over a work that sounds like some of the dipsticks at the gym who make a show out of grunting and groaning and being theatrical about all the weight they’re lifting. 😎

  2. I was immediately drawn into the first excerpt. Loved it! The second I stopped reading halfway through, honestly. I don’t care about the protagonist yet, so telling me all about why she’s there and what happened to the area doesn’t work for me. I’d much rather have my interest piqued so I’m forced to read on.

  3. Ken Kesey’s opening is great. I love that kind of writing. James Michener would go back in geologic time to start some of his novels. I start my stories that way because I like to write that stuff. Then I whack off a chapter or two and open with action. Thank you.

  4. I wouldn’t read past the first page on either of the examples, but if I did, I’d be more likely to read the 2nd. I have a friend, on the other hand, who would love both examples.
    And that’s why writing is so much fun!

  5. Rule 1 is to be entertaining, and there are many ways to achieve that. Pros who know the “rules” forward and backward can sense when it’s time to break one rule to better utilize another.

    Look at chess. One of the most sacred rules is to protect your queen. But there are many dazzling games where a master sacrifices the queen to win the game.

    However, you don’t waste a queen just to violate the rules. You have to know what you’re doing.

  6. Here’s another rule we need to consider. I just started a book I couldn’t keep readying. Why? The protagonist acted like a spoiled idiot on the first pages. There was nothing likable about her. She may improve with time, but time authors don’t have when they turn readers off in the first few pages.

    How about this one, point-of-view errors. Indeed, when the author head-hops right off the bat, I’m outta there.

    Maybe these are rules, maybe their guidelines, but in truth they are what good writing makes.

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  9. In addition to fantastic prose, Kesey’s opening has movement, momentum, and portent. It’s descriptive, but isn’t static. It sweeps us across the mountains and down to a river “hiding the cruel file-edge of its current beneath a smooth and calm-seeming surface.” Something ominous lurks beneath the beauty.

    Example 2 doesn’t grab me. But millions of readers knew that this author was going to deliver drama, romance, and tragedy in the pages that follow this one, and that’s what mattered to them.

  10. Boy, did you pick a couple of great examples to illustrate your point, Jim! Especially example #2. It’s hard to believe (and yet it’s true) that such a successful writer could open a big novel with such crap. It’s even harder to believe that her Big 5 editor would read it and say, “Yes! This is great! THIS is what we want!” Or, worse yet, if that endless opening paragraph was “edited” by the Big 5 Editor into its current state. And worse still, that unsuspecting readers would pay upwards of $30 for this crap and THEN dutifully and robotically tell all their friends what a great writer she is and how terrific her new book is.

    • Yes Mike, as Meg points out above, the reason this can happen is that the fan base knows what’s coming, and that’s enough. There is no editorial input at that level. It’s bean counting.

  11. Couldn’t hack either one of those stories. The second is just bad info-dump, something a novice would do. But Kesey’s opening bothers me a bit more. ‘Literary’ writing always seems to be the author’s attempt to impress me with how many similes and metaphors he can pack into one sentence, how many descriptive terms he can use to describe something ordinary. Leaves me cold. But there have been some outstanding ‘literary’ novels written that tell a story superlatively, but don’t constantly overload the reader with high-flown language. Examples: The English Patient, The Sot Weed Factor. All in the eye of the beholder, of course.

  12. Love this post. You know this, I write about it, as well. The excuse writers give is “I’m an artist,” and in that context, I offer this:

    A quote by Pablo Picasso: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

    • “If you’re good enough, like Picasso, you can put noses and breasts wherever you like. But first you have to know where they belong.” – Alice K. Turner, Playboy fiction editor

  13. I’ve been tearing apart the first pages of best-selling novels Wednesdays on Live Write Thrive, and it’s been interesting to see how many of those pages are all explanation and none of the “act first” stuff. Some are successful due to the lovely literary writing, but others, to me, are boring and just don’t engage.

    The point I make is that hugely successful authors often have patient, forgiving fans willing to wade through pages of explanation and backstory to get to that action (or not), but most authors can’t afford to take such chances at losing their readers.

  14. Mr. Bell,

    This is so timely for me it’s almost spooky. I’ve been sitting for well over an hour at my computer struggling with the opening of the fifth chapter of my current WIP (my fourth novel), and my brain has been on active rebellion: ‘I do NOT want to write this,’ it tells me. Yet I kept slogging along, changing words, rearranging phrases, until I gave up to take a break and found your post.

    My brain is shouting ‘I told you so!’ And I’m on the threshold of a realization:
    Your advice does not work only for book openings, but for each chapter opening as well.

    Act first, explain later for some reason reminds me of the old saying, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” Why is that, I wonder.

    Thank you. My brain thanks you, and so does the novel.

  15. I’ll be a contrarian and say I don’t think Kesey’s opening is the exception that proves the rule. I’ve always said it’s important to start with your story in progress. And that’s even more true today than it was in Kesey’s day.

  16. I just got back from SleuthFest where guest of honor CJ Box used his opening sentences/paragraphs from many of his books as part of his talk about the importance of hooking a reader from the start. I’d take any one of his over both of these examples any day. In his debut novel, Open Season, his opening lines:

    When a high-powered rifle bullet hits living flesh it makes a distinctive — pow-WHOP — sound that is unmistakable even at a tremendous distance. There is rarely an echo or fading reverberation or the tailing rumbling hum that is the sound of a miss. The guttural boom rolls over the terrain but stops sharply in a close-ended way, as if jerked back. A hit is blunt and solid like an airborne grunt. When the sound is heard and identified, it isn’t easily forgotten.

  17. I firmly believe that artists should follow the guidelines first – they should do this many times before they start to explore other ways. Somebody learning to throw pots on a wheel should probably stick to the rules for the first 500 to 1000 pots they throw. Then start branching out and exploring. Becoming an expert at the fundamentals will make their explorations and experimental work that much better.

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