Here is my little tribute to Virginia Woolf, for her love of bookbinding and stream-of-consciousness writing. I saved these five book covers and their accompanying endpapers from the obscurity of the Archive, and I present them to you to print and use as you choose. They make very pretty A6 notebooks and you can easily make a set of one of each, or print out several volumes of your favourite. Read More
Sometimes it’s difficult to decide where to begin telling a story, and “begin at the beginning” isn’t always the best advice.
The beginning of your story need not take place in your opening scene! The opening scene can be used to…
- Capture the reader’s attention with an unusual event or setting,
- Pique their curiosity with a mystery,
- Or build rapport by providing interesting information or prefatory material.
As we know from our study of suspense, delay can be a useful tactic for building pleasurable anticipation.
But how to use this delay to best effect in your own story? This worksheet will help you figure out just that.
P.S. If you would like some more inspiration, here is a list of 30 Opening Scene Ideas. Or how about studying the opening scenes of your favourite novels?
The other day, during my weekly call with my dear writing guru, Andreea, I bemoaned the fact that I hadn’t started planning for NaNoWriMo yet, and how difficult it was to plot out an entire series. She told me that I sounded as though I were trying to follow someone else’s rules for writing – “you’re great at plotting your way.” This, I immediately writ out large and pinned to my corkboard. It was a wonderful reminder that I’ve done this before, and know what works for me.
When I participated in my first NaNoWriMo I was still in school and had never written anything longer than an English essay. I worked voraciously, whizzing through quizzes so I could sneak in a few minutes of writing at the end, and for the first time I felt the push of a deadline and the rush of “writing with abandon”. My story was about a girl who was at university in Wales, where she met a boy and went to live in his cottage in the countryside. A few years later, I was living out my scenario. One November evening I sat alone in said cosy cottage typing away at an adventure story set in a wool shop (not a bad yarn), unaware that a candle that had been placed on top of the woodburner had dripped and overflowed its dish. When I opened the door of the woodburner to arrange the logs, the oils in the wax caught fire, the flames wicking up towards the wooden mantelpiece and filling the room with acrid smoke in a matter of seconds. I experienced the most terrifying moments of my life until, heart and mind racing and fingers trembling, I managed to douse the fire with a woollen blanket.
Fast forward a few years and I was in another location, rebelling by writing a collection of ghost stories instead of a novel, when a bat flew into my room, casting its enormous shadow on the wall in front of me. I let out a blood-curdling scream and ran out, abandoning my writing. I must admit that ten minutes later, as I peered at the cute little chirping fellow through the mesh of the laundry basket (he was inside it, not I), I did think that I might have overreacted. We were never able to determine its means of ingress, however, and I’m convinced that he found a way through from my story universe.
I recount these episodes in order to make a few recommendations:
1. Spend November writing with abandon, without worrying about showing anyone the end result.
2. Be prepared for strange (mis)adventures.
3. Write about the experiences that you would like to have.
If you want more romance in your life, write a romance; if you want more episodes of adventure, mysteries and denouements, frissons of fear, thrilling chases, or magic spells, write those. Make a list of your deepest desires. Write out a list of scenes you would like to live, and invent a thinly-veiled version of your better self to interact with those scenes. Write in invisible ink, or in code, or eat it afterwards if you’re afraid of revealing your yearnings, but make sure you write.
Don’t write what you know
Writing what you know is a sure step towards ennui and a mid-November crisis. If you’re intent on writing from experience, research your own life. Then research other people, places, practices and particulars. Describe in detail dishes you’ve never tasted, scents you’ve never sniffed, fabrics you’ve never felt, natural phenomena you’ve never witnessed or a song you’ve never listened to. For your writing to really leap the limits of your life, and for your life to imitate your art, you need to widen your horizons, as that scoundrel LeFroy tells Jane Austen in Becoming Jane.
You may explain my experiences in any way you wish. Is it the law of attraction at work? Is it just confirmation bias? Is it mere coincidence?* Whatever you believe, take my recommendations with a pinch of salt, but take them nevertheless. Even if you have a story in mind for NaNoWriMo, add a scene or two from your font of desire, and you will surely gain more momentum. Novel Writing Month is a time of strong magic, after all, and it’s worth planning something special!
* Please do not be so dull as to choose this last one.
You can use this worksheet to:
- Brainstorm solutions to a mystery that your story/character/life has graced you with.
- Work backwards from clues that interest you to develop a mystery.
- Draw up an overview of your mystery so that you can be sure that all your clues aren’t discovered in the same places by the same people with the same result.
- Deconstruct and study your favourite murder mystery or solve one before the detective does!
Don't miss any future writing worksheets!
I have been captivated by a question posed by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth interviews, wherein he discusses the cave paintings at Lascaux…
MOYERS: Do you ever look at these primitive art objects and think not of the art but of the man or woman standing there painting or creating? I find that I speculate — who was he or she?
CAMPBELL: This is what hits you when you go into those ancient caves. What was in their minds as they created these images? How did they get up there? And how did they see anything? The only light they had was a little flickering torch.
And with respect to the problem of beauty — is this beauty intended? Or is it something that is the natural expression of a beautiful spirit? Is the beauty of the bird’s song intentional? In what sense is it intentional? Or is it the expression of the bird, the beauty of the bird’s spirit, you might say? I think that way very often about this art. To what degree was the intention of the artist what we would call “aesthetic” or to what degree expressive? And to what degree is the art something that they had simply learned to do that way?
When a spider makes a beautiful web, the beauty comes out of the spider’s nature. It’s instinctive beauty. How much of the beauty of our own lives is about the beauty of being alive? How much of it is conscious and intentional? That is a big question.
Every word that Campbell speaks is golden, and I urge you to read (US / UK) or listen to (US
/ UK) the interviews in their entirety. If you’ve seen Werner Herzog’s documentary on the more recently-discovered Chauvet Cave, I think you’ll have an even deeper appreciation of the discussion.
How much of the beauty of our own lives is about the beauty of being alive?
How much of it is conscious and intentional?