This week, I was delighted to come across Ryan Lanz’s new project, Under the Microscope, in which he gives feedback on the opening paragraphs of writers’ works-in-progress. They submit the first three hundred and fifty words or so, and he offers them free advice in an open forum where the readers get to learn along with the writer, which is absolutely fantastic. I love the idea, and Ryan does a great job giving gentle, constructive criticism.
But it got me thinking: why just the beginning? I know that this is often considered one of the most crucial parts of the story: you have to have a compelling beginning, with a strong opening sentence or “hook,” and you often have very definite ideas as to how you want your readers to respond. You want them to sympathize with the main character, generally, and begin to have an idea of the conflict. Most importantly, you want them to want to keep reading.
Yet this is also what happens in the scenes after that. The main character meets more characters or new problems, and you are still juggling exposition and description and plot while endeavoring to keep the reader’s interest. Some will keep reading just to know how the story ends, but others won’t.
I guess I feel that writers can get carried away with focusing on the beginning of the book. Most of the time, the very first page isn’t what makes me shut a book and decide not to keep reading. It’s usually some time much farther into the story, when a scene isn’t handled well, when the plot begins to falter, or when I feel that the characters aren’t living up to the strong beginning. For every story that had a weak beginning, I can think of three or four that lost me somewhere else.
And not every reader starts at the beginning. In bookstores, some readers read the back of a book and then flip through the pages, stopping in the middle or even at the end to see if it captures their attention. I’m not sure if they still do this with eBooks—I would think that would get more complicated on an electronic device—but the fact remains that a book is judged by much more than the beginning.
I’ve done this myself, with books other people are reading, after they’ve set them down. I’ll jump in, somewhere in the middle, reading where they were reading, and that moment will determine if I stay with it or not.
So I’ve decided to start a writing critique project here on Into the Writer Lea called “Writing that Scene,” where we’ll look at a variety of scenes in books, examining classic novels and more contemporary works-in-progress to see how and why things work. The focus will be on THAT scene. The one that keeps you awake at night, the one where you wonder if you have too much description, or too little, or too much emotion, or if the dialogue is believable.
It’s for fight scenes, where you need to explain a bunch of physical action without getting confusing or overly technical. It’s for scenes where the awkwardness between characters is palpable…at least, in your head. It’s for scenes that are meant to be funny, but you aren’t sure that anyone else will even smile, or scenes that are touchingly sad but hopefully nowhere near the land of melodrama. It’s for those scenes that you have written and re-written, edited and modified until you aren’t sure which version you like anymore.
Writing that Scene is designed to give writers a quick, free reality check on almost any scene in their work-in-progress, running it past real readers who will give positive, constructive criticism about what works and what doesn’t while pointing out things the writer might want to consider.
And the rest of the time, we’ll look at what other writers found worked for them, pulling apart the sentences of some of our favorites. Due to copyright laws, I’m only going to cover works that have crossed over into public domain, and those which current authors can give permission to post, but please, feel free to submit or suggest any you’d like to see, especially your own. I know that, for me, one of the most helpful things to do when I hit THAT scene was to see how other writers handled similar problems, and I’m really looking forward to learning more through this project.
(Note: If the beginning of your work is the part that is bothering you, I would recommend you try Ryan’s project first and see if it’s a good fit. I don’t want to take anyone away from him; he is doing an amazing job, and, but for his project of Under the Microscope, I wouldn’t have thought to do Writing that Scene. Thanks, Ryan!)
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren