Next in our series of posts expanding on my Writing Tips list, we have:
Open active: Start scene with changes underway and then explain how you got there…unless change are significant.
First: what do I mean by openings? In this case, I mean the beginnings to new scenes and chapters. Much of this could also be applied to first lines, but first lines have additional issues weighing upon them. So, for the most part, I am talking about internal openings—how to start after a scene change.
Second: what do I mean by opening actively. An active opening is when you start your scene in the middle of the action, where something interesting is already going on, instead of with a bridging scene that connects the previous scene to the next scene.
Active openings are also called In Medias Res, which, for the Latin Illiterate (like myself) is a phrase meaning something like “in the middle of the affair.”
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, here are two examples of openings—one active, one not:
1) The next day, we rose early and washed the car. After that, we headed down Route 66.
2) “He’s gaining on us! Step on it!” Carly yelled. She hung half out the passenger window, so that when I swerved around the rolling oil drum, she nearly fell out of the car.
Why is an active beginning interesting? Two reasons: the active opening sentence is often more interesting in and of itself. (See above.) Second, it raises questions: what is going on? Why is this happening? Who is chasing them? The more questions the reader has—assuming that they have faith that the author will provide answers—the more eager the reader is to read on.
There is another benefit as well. Starting in the middle often makes the whole scene more interesting. It tends to jump right to the exciting part, skipping the lead up. This helps keep the scene on track and moving quickly.
The key to the active opening is two things: picking an arresting scene and filling in the gap.
Picking an arresting scene: Picking a scene that will draw the reader’s interest requires that you think out the events you want to have happen and pick a moment from it that is early enough that the main action has not happened yet, and yet far enough along that the action has already begun.
The action does not need to have fully begun. In the above example, instead of starting with the chase, I could have started with:
“There’s a red Honda following us.” Carly leaned out the window, her hand shading her eyes. “Does that mean anything to you?”
This beginning is also active—far more active than the first one. But it requires less explanation for the reader to grasp how the main characters reached this spot. Which leads us to our second point.
Filling in the gaps: Jumping in the middle of the scene means you have to take at least a moment to go back and explain what happen between the previous scene and the current action—how the characters got to the exciting predicament they are in now. Usually, this is done by a mini-flashback in the first few paragraphs of the new scene. You do not want to wait too long, as you don’t want the readers sense of puzzlement to grow to the point that it interferes with their enjoyment. So, unless the way the character got there is a secret you are withholding for a good reason, you want to get that out of the way as soon as possible.
The key to a good active opening is being able to do this elegantly. Going back to our example one above, pretend for a moment that it is important that the characters recently washed their car. If so, include it in the mini-flashback.
Cutting hard to the right to avoid the oncoming truck, I barreled through a puddle, splashing mud all over our newly washed car.
I cut hard to the right, avoiding an oncoming truck. We had risen early this morning so we could wash the car before setting out. At the time, it had not occurred to me that they might find us during the trip, so we had not brought our weapons. If they caught us, all we had to defend ourselves with was my little brother’s soccer cleat that he left in the car by mistake and an old umbrella.
When do you use an active opening? Basically, whenever you can. Action is more interesting than static. Which leads to the next question: when do you not open actively?
There are a number of instances when an active opening is not desirable. Among others, they include: complexity of events jumped, subject of scene, and variation.
Complexity: if many events have taken place since the last scene, it may be impossible to write a quick, elegant mini-flashback. It is easy to cover getting up and washing the car, or flying into town and going shopping before heading to the rendezvous, but if the villains showed up, killed the main character’s parakeet, burnt down his house, and kidnapped his mother-in-law before the big fight scene, that is a little harder to sum-up.
Basically, the rule of thumb is: if the explanation of how they got there is so long or awkward as to slow down the current scene, you would probably be better off writing the events in chronological order.
Scene Subject: If the subject the scene is not active, there is no point in confusing the reader by starting in the middle. A quiet walk in the garden with the family parakeet (before the villains arrive to off the dear bird*) does not need an active beginning. While it would still be nice to open with an interesting or evocative line, it does not need to be in medias res.
Variation: Even if all your scenes have dramatic action (while walking in the garden with the cat, the main character activates a trip wire that opens a trap door dropping him into the center of a fight going on in the underground headquarters of the villain) it is sometimes nice to start a scene with a description or a gentle moment merely for the sake of variation.
Readers need breathers as well as action. A moment taken sniffing the hyacinths and feeling the breeze that is ruffling the parakeet’s feathers can make the surprise drop into the busy secret headquarters even more unexpected.
How much breather vs. action—how many scenes to open in the midst of things vs. otherwise—depends upon your genre. For instance, a romance might be likely to have more gentle scene openings than a thriller.
In closing, starting your scenes with a bang helps jumpstart your readers into the scene, compelling them to keep reading. Then—so long as you have a compelling middle and end on another bang—your story will be irresistible.
*Do not fear, Dear Parakeet Lovers, our feathered heroine is not daunted by this turn of events. She comes back to help the hero as a ghost.