Sometimes the Sequel Comes First

I’ve recently started writing my newest novel, and I finished the first scene last night. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, especially as I’ve queried agents with my more recent manuscripts, is how critical the beginning of the book is. The first page is key, but so are the first five pages. This is what readers use to decide when they consider buying a book, and is therefore a major focal point for agents/editors. Most agents will ask for the first 5 pages or so when you query them, and that’s all they have to decide if they want to request more.

In the past, I’ve struggled with writing great openings to my books, but I hope that I’m getting better as I continue to write. In this post, I’ll be talking about the current strategy I use, but my thoughts here are somewhat speculative – I’m still working through the challenges of making my beginnings pop.

A common approach writers use to hook their audience (agents, editors, or consumers) is to drop the reader right into the middle of an action scene. While this is an effective way of cutting out the common fluff that most newbie writers like to load up their openings with – long descriptions of scenery, backstory, detailed worldbuilding – there is a major downside to this strategy. Openings that show a character fighting off demons, or attempting to pull a damaged plane out of freefall sound really compelling, but if the reader doesn’t know anything about the character, or have any way of connecting to her, it’s very possible the reader won’t care about the character’s success or failure. And if the reader doesn’t care, the scene loses all potential tension.

It’s hard to find the right balance in a novel’s beginning, giving enough characterization to make the reader care, while also making interesting stuff happen so the reader isn’t bored. In my current novel (and the previous) I’ve found myself starting in the middle of what’s known as a sequel – not book 2, but a scene that involves character reaction and decision making.

If you’re not familiar with the scene/sequel format of writing, I recommend Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I’ve found it to be a great resource, and I think it’s valuable for writers of all experience levels. The original edition was published in 1965, but it’s remarkably relevant to contemporary writing.

The basic breakdown of scene vs. sequel is this:

  • Scenes involve a character goal, conflict, and a setback or disaster
  • Sequels are based on a character’s emotional response to a disaster

Scenes are where the action takes place. They are full of tension, and up until the end of the story, they always end with something going wrong.

Sequels are “scenes” where characters react to problems, work through them, and come to some decision that propels the character into the next scene.

A conventional novel is formatted as scene-sequel, scene-sequel, scene-sequel, …

But I’ve found that I like starting my books in the middle of a sequel, where some disaster has already occurred. The disaster need not have happened just before page 1, or even on the same day, but it should be something weighing heavily on the character.

I think this gives me a good balance of characterization and conflict/tension, because it immediately puts the character in an emotional situation, forces her to make a tough decision, and allows me to lead right in to a scene with real conflict. I think it’s key, though, that the sequel portion of this sequel-scene combo is short. Right now, my opening sequel is about 1,100 words, which may be too long. I’ll need to work on cutting that down.

Anyway, I don’t mean to say that I believe this is the right or best way to open a novel. I’m not even completely confident that this is a good technique. But my current opinion is that this approach can provide a nice way to get the reader to care about the main character and quickly give a compelling hook.

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