I was listening to Bob Mayer give a workshop on writing the novel and I heard the voice of God. Now, I like Bob Mayer very much, but it wasn’t his voice I heard, it was something coming from the ceiling of my mind, and it said: Hey, dimwit, rewrite the opening scene of your novel.
Bob Mayer was on the subject of kernel ideas for stories, opening lines (“I told him I loved him and he killed me anyway”), and how the original idea should be worked and reworked until people light up when you tell them the story premise. I was thinking that this was all great advice, and I wrote it down, but I didn’t exactly need to hear it. What I needed to hear was what he said next. “Your opening scene often mirrors your climactic scene.”
Now let me go back and tell a little story about the opening scene of my novel in progress. (About which, for superstition’s sake, I can’t say very much.) The writers’ organization that I chair, Write on the River, held a class last fall where two authors whose names you might recognize came over to Wenatchee and critiqued (anonymous) first pages of novels in front of an audience that had submitted the pages. Well, unbeknownst to these two pals of mine, in the stack was the first page of my novel. I thought it was a zinger. And like, I’ve published ten novels, so I thought it would be good to have a really hot first page in the stack for, you know, balance.
Um. It seems that from a perfectly unbiased point of view, my page wasn’t very good. Hearing this stung a bit. The opening paragraphs had drama, imagination, action and intrigue. But they just weren’t all that good. (After a couple glasses of wine later that evening, I told them I’d been in the pile, and they were both chagrined. But you know, they gave me their unvarnished opinion. It’s not often a writer gets that.)
I huffed about this, thinking, Well, it has to open this way. And what do they know, anyway. But from that point on I was looking for a new opening, and had no clue how to recast it.
Now back to Bob Mayer’s class. His statement about mirroring the climactic scene hit me right between the eyes. This story is the most clearly thematic novel I’ve ever written, with a (hopefully hidden) theme. And after Mayer I knew right away what the opening scene needed to be about. The theme, of course. It wasn’t long before I had a rip roaring opener, full of drama, imagination, and action–but this time highly meaningful action.
I wrote this lovely scene in one outpouring, as though it was coming from somewhere else. (And it sort of is somewhere else. The region inside your head that you can only access when you get out of the way. That place.)
The point I’m getting to is not that your opening scene should mirror your climax or reflect your theme (but how satisfying if they do!) but how sometime a little nudge turns out to be just the thing you need to hear. It’s as though we know stuff subconsciously about our stories but we don’t always let it intrude on the iron control of I-know-how-to-write-this.
In the end, this is one of the great benefits of attending lectures, workshops and conferences. Even though you may think you’re getting a “refresher” on the obvious, the experience can be more profound than that. Your subconscious is working on the story while you’re dutifully taking notes and wondering if there are any muffins left in the lobby. And when your subconscious hears something profoundly useful, it latches on so hard that you break your pencil in half trying to scribble it down.
Sometimes a great nudge comes just in time.