Novel openings

So I’m writing the third book in the Assassin’s Gambit series, which is currently untitled, and I’ve run into a bit of a dilemma about the opening.

I have chosen a “soft” opening for this novel. If you’ve read the first two books in the series (and I know most of you haven’t because they’re not published yet! but some of my critique partners read this blog, and they’ve read them), then you know this is not typical for me. Assassin’s Gambit opens with a bang. The opening for Spy’s Honor isn’t quite so shocking, but it starts with a scene that immediately introduces major conflict.

Untitled, however… I went with a gentle opening. Lucien and Celeste (who are brother and sister) are at the docks, messing around with some brimstone that has just arrived by ship. There’s some light and fluffy stuff about Lucien’s dog, and mostly it’s a sweet scene with some gentle banter. It does introduce the main conflict, but the characters in the scene are not themselves in conflict. They have a good relationship, and that’s exactly what I wanted to show. In the scenes that follow, it’s important for the reader to understand that Celeste is motivated by a desire to please her brother, not by fear or intimidation.

Early feedback on this scene has been mixed. Some of my critique partners like it. Others think I should cut it and begin with the scene that follows, a high-conflict scene that gets right to the meat of the story. But if I do that, I miss the opportunity to show the relationship between Lucien and Celeste. Furthermore, since this is book 3 of a series, and Lucien is an important character in every book, I think series readers might want to spend a little time with Lucien, because after the first two chapters he drops out of the book for quite a while. Readers picking up book 3 without having read the first two might be less interested.

I find it’s always difficult to decide how to open a novel. I may end up punting this question to my editor and seeing what she thinks. Pretty soon we’ll have to put the teaser for this novel into the back of Spy’s Honor, and at that point a decision will have to be made about which scene to use.

What do you think about novel openings? Do you prefer a book to open with a bang? Or do you like a softer opening sometimes? Does it make a difference to you if the book is the first in a series or a later book in the series? I know you can’t evaluate my particular two scenes without reading them, but I’m curious about your general thoughts.

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13 Responses to Novel openings

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    You’ve already heard my opinion *winks*, but I say, it definitely matters which book it is in a series. I love your reasoning for having a softer opening for book 3 in your Hearts and Thrones series, and I think showing a much-loved character in a peaceful moment to establish character WHILE introduing the main point of conflict is just fine.

  2. Lenora Rose says:

    I find it varies. Which is useless, of course. A more leisurely book should never start faster than it continues — or even a book like A Game of Thrones, whose prologue is *even more* actiony than the rest of the book, and which isn’t followed through on anytime soon. For something which is very plotty (be it action, suspense, romance, or whatnot) starting fast can help give the reader the expectation of pace … but starting slower and ramping up also works.

    I know I get more frustrated with books that throw you in before you can care about the characters than i do with books that take a bit of time, so long as the time is *interesting* (IE, fun dialogue or some item that illumines the characters or relationship.)

    A case in point is the Avengers movie (Marvel, not Mrs. Peel — the latter movie had so much wrong with it that the opening would hardly count, if I could even remember it): in the very first scene, two characters we just met are ensorcelled. We hardly get to see them as people before that. One is a quite minor character (and had a major role in a prior film for those who watched all or most of the Marvel movies), so I didn’t mind, but we’re supposed to care about the other (And he had only a cameo in the other movie). I love the film, but I always wished they could come up with a minute or two of him doing something quieter beforehand. Sitting at a table eating or gambling with some of the other characters, exercising, doing a hobby, a phone call to his usual partner just before she gets into the ‘trouble’ she gets into across the world … the worst is, Whedon is good at that sort of intro (He’s *great* at amusing chatter around a table). He just didn’t.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Yeah, I absolutely think opening with an action scene or anything confusing or hectic, when you don’t know the characters yet, is a bad idea. Regardless of whether my opening is high-tension or low-tension, I always like to open with just one or two characters and maybe introduce a third after the reader is well oriented, and keep the scene pretty simple in its content. You just can’t throw everything at the reader at once.

      • Lenora Rose says:

        Yeah, I’m struggling right now with how to open the third story in a set so that it’s coherent to new readers (Summarizes soemthign of the prior plot) and won’t make everyone else scream with boredom. I’ve tried four different ways, and the one that seems the most useful also strikes me as being a better *second* scene.

  3. Lately, I’ve been reading new books by some of my “regular” favorite authors. These are people who have been published for decades, and I’ve noticed that their openings are all over the place. It simply is not true that an opening has to be a zinger in order to work. I would say that, especially with the third book in a series, you have credit with your readers. Your stories are character-driven, and your characters are people that your readers will connect to and will enjoy knowing. So from my perspective, the soft opening you describe sounds perfect for that book.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Thanks. Yeah, I find that with established authors as well. They don’t seem to feel the need to resort to all kinds of tricks (like shifting forward/backward in time, etc., or opening with an intriguing first line that is then awkward for shifting into the story) to open with a grabby hook. They’ve reached a point where their readers simply trust that the story will be good without requiring that it grab them by the throat within three sentences.

  4. Jill Archer says:

    Enjoyed reading this because it’s great to hear how other writers do things. Opening with a bang is always good. On the other hand, I think it’s neat to mix things up. (Agree with Jessi though, if you’re going to have a softer opening, have it do many things in a short period of time: establish character, underscore theme, and introduce the main story conflict). The fact that you have to get that opening chapter ready before you’re completely finished with the book must be challenging but I’m sure whatever you decide will be the right choice!

    • Amy Raby says:

      It’s a tough decision. I could open with my second scene, but that would leave two major characters relatively undefined (which means I’d probably end up moving a lot of the content from the first scene into the second scene!). I think my editor will weigh in when I send her the opening chapter for the teaser.

  5. Kish Underwood says:

    Jessi speaks for me as well on thsi one.

  6. I’m not sure this is a good option. These three novels appear to be of a specific family, and since you started the first two the same way, I’m not certain changing the opening for the third is such a good idea.

    Even if you can make it work, which I am certain you can, I’m not convinced it’s smart to do, because then you will be making the third book stand out from the other two. And I’m not sure you want to do that in a trilogy.

    Hey, I could be wrong, though. It’s been known to happen. 😛

    • Amy Raby says:

      If I’d established a pattern in my openings, then yeah, I wouldn’t want to deviate from that. But books one and two open differently, one with a prologue and the other with a simple (but high tension) dialogue scene. So I don’t think I have a pattern to maintain, but I do worry that readers new to the series may not find this opening scene as fun as “experienced” readers (who know the characters) will.

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